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There is either one or no errors in the following statement.

Every spring in rural Vermont the sound of sap dripping into galvanized metal buckets signal the beginning of the traditional season for gathering maple syrup.

There are two things I don't see right, one of which is obviously the culprit.

  1. Directly after "rural Vermont" [Shouldn't there be a comma after it]
  2. "signal" [The subject is "sound" (singular), so the verb should end in an s.

I'm more on the side of the second one rather than the first. Or there could be no error at all.

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(1) is a style issue. (2) is a grammatical error. –  Henry Oct 11 '12 at 0:12

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Yes, most style books would probably insist on the comma. I too would use a comma, although I wouldn't say it was truly wrong without a comma.

It should indisputably be signals, as you say. Sound is the subject and it is singular.

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Thank you. This sentence really got me! –  David Oct 11 '12 at 0:35
    
I think it's putting it a bit strong to say most style books would probably insist on the comma. What if the stuff following "Vermont" were shorter? What if the stuff before it were shorter? No style guide would say you need a comma with "In Vermont it rains". After that, it's a subjective decision how long the clauses need to be before you're better off adding a comma to aid legibility. And frankly, one comma less than a quarter of the way through OP's sentence isn't going to help the legibility problem much anyway, so why bother with it at all? –  FumbleFingers Oct 11 '12 at 2:49
    
@Fumble: Grammar handbooks & style guides used to say (30 years ago) that an introductory phrase more than 4 words long required a comma. What's important is how long the introductory phrase is, not what follows. I use a comma for all introductory phrases, almost without exception. It's a style choice. These days, however, many writers seem to have abandoned style choice like these. They don't like typing or keyboarding, it seems. Editors don't seem to care either. Fewer characters = shorter articles = lower cost = let's fill in the columns with whatever comes along for the ride. Cynical Bill. –  user21497 Oct 11 '12 at 3:18
    
@Bill Franke: I don't see a problem with discarding surplus apostrophes, and I don't think the long-term trend in that direction reflects laziness, ignorance, or tight-fistedness. We all have access to clearer type and better typefaces than was the norm when these recommendations were formulated, and I suspect on average we wrote longer sentences anyway. Use a comma when it helps legibility, not when a style guide says so. –  FumbleFingers Oct 11 '12 at 3:26
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@Bill Franke,Cerberus: I don't think I actually disagree with either of you. On the one hand I may be a little more tolerant of "missing" commas in other people's writing, and on the other hand I may use more commas myself than are necessary. But the bottom line is we all think style guides are just that - guides. Follow them when they agree with what you want to do anyway, or if whoever's paying for your deathless prose requires you to do so. I don't want to see commas or semicolons disappear completely, but a little culling here and there certainly doesn't bother me. –  FumbleFingers Oct 11 '12 at 12:36

The sentence doesn't exactly make sense... "Every spring in rural Vermont the sound of sap dripping" just doesn't sound right. Say it aloud. It sounds funky.

Are you sure that you typed up the sentence word for word? Because it would make both of the possible errors into true errors if you had accidentally forgotten to type up the word "For" before the sentence. It would look like this: "FOR every spring in rural Vermont, the sound of sap dripping into galvanized metal buckets signals...."

The reason this sentence sounds funky is because "Every spring in rural Vermont" is not connected to the sentence. But whether or not you have it, the verb "signal" still requires an "S" because "the sound" is completing the action of signaling and it is singular, not plural.

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Yup, I did type it word for word. I checked multiple times. This is part of an SAT practice exam. –  David Oct 11 '12 at 0:25
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-1 for incorrect and misleading disinformation. The sentence makes perfect sense. It wants a comma after "Vermont" and a 3rd-person singular /-s/ ending for "signal". "Every spring in rural Vermont" is most certainly "connected to the sentence" in the way that all introductory adverbial phrases are connected to the sentences they introduce. "Funky" is a meaningless word when talking about the grammar & semantics of a sentence. Use it for music or fashion, but not for linguistics. Signal must be signals because it's 3rd person singular & for no other reason. Harsh but true. –  user21497 Oct 11 '12 at 0:50

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