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ASK DR. EDITOR

Getting “is” right

When you can’t tell how to conjugate “to be,” your lay summary isn’t laying correctly.

By LETITIA HENVILLE | SEP 19 2018

Welcome to Ask Dr. Editor! This advice column is for you if you’re an academic who is seeking to communicate their research effectively – to be read, understood, funded, cited, and acted upon. Each post will focus on techniques for shaping your writing to fit your audience and context. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to Ask Dr. Editor at shortishard@gmail.com or on Twitter @lertitia with the hashtag #askDrEditor.

Question:

Dr. Editor’s response:

The short answer: “Is” is correct, and – conveniently – will save you one character in that restricted character count. The subject of your sentence is the one youth who is affected by mental illness, and thus the singular verb agrees with your subject. So you can use “is” here. But I think you shouldn’t. I suggest you revise your sentence to eliminate this construction.

The longer answer: When you’re writing a lay summary, you’re demonstrating your ability to speak with, and be understood by, the public. Awkward-but-accurate constructions – like “1 in 4 youth is” – don’t support the feasibility of your knowledge translation plan (to borrow the language of our federal funding agencies). This kind of awkward-but-accurate phrasing makes it look like you don’t know how to communicate with a lay reader, which is sure to sink this section of your application – especially if this sentence is in a strategically important place in your summary, such as its first couple of sentences.

Clearly “1 in 4 youth is” sounds awkward to the ear of English speakers, who, when speaking aloud, often make their verbs agree with the most recently vocalized noun. Since we wouldn’t say “youth is affected,” the singular verb “is” sounds incorrect in this instance – even though it’s technically the right one to use.

The further the subject (“one youth”) gets from the main verb (“is”) in a sentence, the more likely this kind of confusion becomes. That’s why you’ll find technically inaccurate phrasing in publications as diligent in their copyediting as The New Yorker – a magazine with a reputation for strict adherence to copyediting rules so inflexible and so archaic that they require the use of a diaeresis (the little umlaut-esque pair of dots) over doubled-up vowels, as in the second “o” of “coordinate.” Even in The New Yorker, you can find grammatically incorrect but aurally harmonious sentences such as:

The most recent polls show that almost one in five voters are still undecided (Margaret Talbot, “Ireland’s Vote on Abortion Is a Referendum on the Nation’s Future,” 24 May 2018);

and

Darline says that one out of five people on these journeys drown (Deborah Treisman, “Edwidge Danticat on Her Caribbean Immigrant Experience,” 7 May 2018);

but, in contrast,

Roughly one out of every six American workers commutes more than forty-five minutes, each way. (Nick Paumgarten, “There and Back Again,” 16 Apr 2007).

If even the copyeditors at The New Yorker – those bastions of flawless grammar – can make a subject-verb agreement error, that’s a sign that the rule in question isn’t truly serving the eyes and the ears of English speakers.

When your writing sounds awkward or will trip up your readers, I almost always suggest revising rather than turning to a book of grammar usage or to a style guide (or to your favourite academic editor, who will in turn pick up their favourite book of grammar usage or style guide). Getting it right matters much less than getting it clear and easy for your reader.

To get around the awkwardness of “1 in 4 youth is,” one possible revision might be “Mental illness affects 1 in 4 young people.” This rephrase has the benefit of being the same length as our original sentence – 43 characters. To keep youth in the subject position in the sentence, another option is “A quarter of youth are affected by mental illness” (50 characters).

The big take-away

When you’re working on a lay summary, it matters much more that your writing is clear and comprehensible than that it is strictly grammatically correct. Funders ask for lay summaries for a range of reasons: to be accountable to donors or taxpayers, to publicize the work they fund, or to assess your ability to translate and disseminate your research findings. In the words of Dr. Holly Witteman, associate professor of medicine at Université Laval and CIHR peer reviewer:

Sentences that risk making your readers stumble and fumble, even when grammatically perfect, are best avoided. Strive for clarity, not mere correctness. As you revise your writing, keep your audience and context at the heart of the editing decisions that you make. Your readers matter more than the unbending rules of grammar.

And if you aren’t a native English speaker with an ear for awkward constructions? Keep your subject close to the main verb in your sentence, and you’ll likely avoid this kind of subject-verb agreement confusion.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to Ask Dr. Editor at shortishard@gmail.com or on Twitter @lertitia.
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  1. Will van den Hoonaard / September 19, 2018 at 13:48

    Ah, the fallen grace of the passive voice! Instead of writing “”1 in 4 youth ARE affected by mental illness,” why not say “Mental illness affects one in four youth.” ?Also, I would be disinclined to use numerals for anything under 20.

  2. Reuben Kaufman / September 20, 2018 at 01:57

    I understand your point that “1” in the expression “1 in 4” is singular, so the verb should be “is”.

    But “1 in 4” does not mean a single person among four people. It means “25% of a large population”; 25% of a large population refers to many people, so one might easily argue that the verb should be “are”.

    The point is well made that one could easily rephrase it to avoid the “problem”.

  3. Nicky Koper / September 20, 2018 at 10:27

    Most useful series ever! Why don’t we learn grammar in Academia? Can’t wait for more. I’ll be sending every one of them to my grad students.

  4. Nick Baxter-Moore / September 23, 2018 at 08:49

    Dr Editor’s suggested rewording, “a quarter of youth are affected,” is also grammatically incorrect. “A quarter” must be singular–hence “a quarter of youth is affected”–but Will van den Hoonaard’s suggested rewording is much more elegant, and is also helpful in recommending the use of words rather than numerals for small numbers.

  5. Letitia Henville / September 24, 2018 at 18:06

    Thanks all for your engaged responses!

    When character counts are highly restricted, as in some pieces of some funding applications, I recommend numerals for all numbers–even the small ones we would conventionally spell out–unless you’re well under the maximum permitted character count.

    I’m also happy to recommend a passive voice sentence when it’s appropriate. More details of where & when are on my blog at shortishard.ca.

    For those of you curious about the difference between “one in four” (which takes a singular verb) and “25% of” or “a quarter of”: the key difference is that “25% of” and “a quarter of” are collecting noun phrases. Like “A host of,” “a fraction of,” and “a portion of,” these collecting noun phrases can take a singular or plural verb, depending on what they’re collecting. “A quarter of the pie was eaten” takes a singular verb because there’s only one pie. “A quarter of the people were eating the pie” takes a plural verb because there are lots of people. See more in Amy Eihsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook p. 341-2 (U Chicago Press, 2006).

    So why isn’t “one in four” a collecting noun phrase, you ask? It’s because we don’t say “one in four of youth.” Collecting noun phrases all have that key “of.” What an illogical distinction–perfectly appropriate for our illogical language. Best to rephrase!

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