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I have some technical documentation that has the phrase:

This chapters describes how to...

And I need to upgrade it to refer to the current and following chapters. What is the correct English phrase to use?

This chapter, and the following chapters in this section, describes how to...

or:

This chapter, and the following chapters in this section, describe how to...

In other words, is the thing doing the describing a multitude of chapters (that would "describe" something), or are the multitude considered a single item here (needing "describes")?

Or, are both phrases wrong?

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The last one is right. Conjunctions form plurals. –  John Lawler May 24 '12 at 2:35
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I don't think you need the commas: "This chapter and the following chapters in this section describe how to..." Also, I wonder, can you simplify the sentence by saying "The chapters in this section describe how to..."? (That is possible, of course, only if all of the chapters in the section describe how to do that thing.) –  JLG May 24 '12 at 2:50
    
@JLG, that's much better than my tortured version. Yes, the entire section does he describing so I think I'll go with that. Both commenters should post them as answers, I would think, so I can properly reward. –  John Smith May 24 '12 at 2:57
    
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2 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

There is no need to repeat "chapters":

"This and the following chapters describe how to ..."

Plural verb agrees with the compound subject in this case.

There's a good segment on compound subject verb agreement here:

http://www.towson.edu/ows/moduleSVAGR.htm

If you need to include information about the section, then you can get away with something like:

"In this section, this and the following chapters describe how to ..."

If you like, you can get away from the use of "in this section" altogether by doing something like:

"This chapter through chapter 15 describes how to ..."

Oddly, the singular verb seems to agree here since now it is a single subject--a nounal phrase which operates as a collection--rather than a compound subject. It is like saying:

"This collection of chapters describes how to ..."

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Ended up going with "The chapters in this section describe ..." which is similar to your "This chapter through ..." one. –  John Smith May 24 '12 at 7:26
    
Ah yes. That's perfect, actually. –  Zahhar May 24 '12 at 7:44
    
The reason I didn't suggest that is because I wasn't sure if it was all chapters in the section or all chapters after a specific chapter within the section. :) –  Zahhar May 24 '12 at 7:46
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In reality, you'll find both used: either a plural verb to agree with the conjunction of both terms or a singular to agree with the 'main' subject and disregarding the parenthetical phrase.

As in practice this is a borderline case, then I would personally take a stance either way:

  • if you feel that both subjects are on 'equal footing', then why not remove the commas and let them stand together, possibly with the rearrangement suggested by @JLG in the comment above?;
  • if you feel that the second subject is truly parenthetical, then why not emphasise that fact by replacing "and" with a phrase such as "along with", "as well as" (in which case speakers would more clearly opt for a singular verb)?
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