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My question arises from this one, where OP asks whether he should use the singular or plural verb form after "the title, as well as the tone,"

As luck would have it, when I searched Google Books for exactly that text, I found...

The title as well as the tone of this volume errs, perhaps, in being unduly modest.


The title, as well as the tone, of the novel derive from Lady Molly Jeavon's household

At the risk of having this question closed as just peeving, I feel that the first one should have been plural "err", because without the commas it seems to me both "the title" and "the tone" have more or less equal status as "joint" subjects of the verb, making it plural.

On the other hand, I feel the commas in the second example effectively demote "the tone" to "parenthetical" status (the clause is almost incidental). Since this encourages us think of "the title" as the primary subject, it should have been singular "derives".

I'm no great fan of "grammatical rules", but it seems weird to me that the only two relevant examples for this specific wording should both (in opposite ways!) contradict my inclinations.

What's going on?

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I find the first example, despite lack of commas, correct; the second I agree is wrong. The only further examples I found, from a Google web search, were "The title as well as the tone of this article dimishes the seriousness of what occured" and "The title, as well as the tone of the entire article, suggests that the copyright office is ...", both of which treat the subject as singular. –  mgkrebbs Jan 28 '12 at 8:20
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4 Answers

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The question seems to me to turn on whether or not as well as is a coordinator. If it is, then the following verb behaves as if and had been used instead, that is, the subject becomes plural and so does the verb. But as well as says something that and does not. And places the two items on an equal footing, but as well as gives grammatical priority to the first item. How would it be if the sentence were The title in addition to the tone of this volume err(s), perhaps, in being unduly modest? That means much the same, but if you have reservations about making the verb singular after as well as, you may well have far fewer reservations about making it singular after in addition to.

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I think you're right. It's all about how we interpret "as well as" - the commas are really rather incidental. Much seems depend on how willing we are to merge/separate the two nouns, and how much "singular emphasis" we give to the first one in context. Even using "in addition to", "together with" or "alongside" doesn't carry as much weight as the particular nouns and context. On balance I'd probably conflate "tone" and "title" into a plural subject much more readily than @Robusto's "Aunt Betsy" and "Stephen Hawking"! –  FumbleFingers Jan 28 '12 at 14:45
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My inclinations are the same as the OP's (err in the first sentence, errs in the second). But according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p.1316) our inclination in the first case would be wrong. It cites the example:

  • Beauty as well as love is redemptive.

and explains the singular verb as follows:

" ... the 3rd person singular verb-form is indicates that the subject is singular: is agrees with beauty, so that as well as love is treated syntactically as an adjunct, not as a coordinate."

Addendum: the passive phrase "is treated syntactically as an adjunct ... " in the reference book's explanation does not specify the agent. In this case I interpret the agent as akin to "English grammar". An alternative interpretation is that the agent is the speaker of this specific sentence and he or she is treating "as well as love" as an adjunct not as a coordinator. Hence the singular verb.

Elsewhere in the Cambridge Grammar are references to what are termed "singular / plural overrides" where the speaker indicates his or her interpretation of the subject as being singular or plural, irrespective of its grammatical status. Something similar may be going on in the OP's quoted sentences. Writer 1 is interpreting tone parenthetically and writer 2 as a coordinate of title, hence their choice of verb number. The problem is that their punctuation, or lack of it, may confound readers' expectations.

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The more I think about it, the more it seems the punctuation is effectively a red herring. It's really the writer's choice whether he thinks he's focussing on the (singular) first noun, or the (plural) combination of both. We the readers should just accept his choice, as indicated by the verb form - and not worry about the grammar as such. The presence or absence of commas isn't actually mandatory for either interpretation. –  FumbleFingers Jan 28 '12 at 14:53
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In the Purdue Online Writing Lab's handout on Making Subjects and Verbs Agree appears this guideline:

Do not be misled by a phrase that comes between the subject and the verb. The verb agrees with the subject, not with a noun or pronoun in the phrase.

There follow several examples, any one of which could be replaced by your purloined (and now redacted) sentences:

The title as well as the tone of this volume errs, perhaps, in being unduly modest.

The title, as well as the tone, of the novel derives from Lady Molly Jeavon's household.

This agrees with what I have been taught, and with my ear as well.

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Not all parenthetical expressions need to be set off by parentheses (or commas, or what have you). It can be argued that title is the subject of that sentence, and the entire reference to tone is ancillary to it. Moreover, "as well as" doesn't perform quite the same function as the conjunction and. It doesn't make the same kind of list.

James and Horace are friends of mine.

Here it would be wrong to use the singular. "James and Horace is a friend of mine" just doesn't play.

But look at it with the other construction:

James as well as Horace are friends of mine. [?]
James as well as Horace is a friend of mine. [?]

To my ear, Horace is definitely reduced to a supporting, if not exactly insignificant role in the sentence. The subject of the sentence is primarily James, and he must rule the copula. Treating them as equals doesn't feel right to me — otherwise, why not just end the ambiguity with and? Even if you argue that someone might wish to use "as well as" to place rhetorical emphasis on the included subject, as in

My Aunt Betsy as well as the physicist Stephen Hawking believes that black holes will eventually evaporate.

Another problem with your example is the parenthetical expression itself. What is it, exactly? Would you really punctuate it thus?

The title, as well as the tone, of the novel ...

That seems awfully stilted and gracelessly halting. If I were writing that sentence I would prefer to recast the sentence to something like

The title of the novel, as well as its tone, derives from ...

or even

The novel's title, as well as its tone, derives from ...

and if we eliminate the punctuation

The novel's title as well as its tone derives from ...

it still feels better (at least to my ear) to use the singular. The plural

The novel's title as well as its tone derive from ... [?]

simply sounds wrong to me.

Now, having written all this, I have to say I'm not willing to fall on my sword for any of it. Given the choice, I would either take the trouble to use the commas to make the parentheticality (if I can use that word) unequivocal, or else take the coward's way out and avoid the construction altogether.

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+1 for "My Aunt Betsy as well as the physicist Stephen Hawking". Regardless of punctuation, we're unlikely to treat that as a (plural) syntactic unit (unless we happen to know that Aunt Betsy helped Hawking develop the theory, for example! :) –  FumbleFingers Jan 28 '12 at 14:28
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