I just read the following in Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational,

[...] Zoe, and the other kids to whom I offered the same deal, was completely blinded by [...] p. 57

To me it would have seemed more natural to have written 'were completely blinded'. On the other hand, commas are often used in place of parentheses, in which case the following would, presumably, be incorrect,

Zoe (and the other kids to whom I offered the same deal) were completely blinded by [...]

Should 'was' or 'were' be used in the sentence separated with commas?

  • Yes - here we have conflicting rules. No doubt someone will cite a 'super-rule' dictating how we must handle agreement here. Then, probably, someone will cite another authority with a different opinion (if the first dictator bothered to acknowledge any authority in the first place). Perhaps someone will weigh in with some supporting statistics. The snag is, there isn't a consensually accepted grammar czar in English. Or perhaps that's a good thing. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 6 '13 at 22:01
  • @EdwinAshworth It seems that rather than the traditional grammar-rule war, StoneyB and I have reached a sort of truce since we both concluded from opposite directions that it's better to rewrite to avoid the whole thing. Now to see if we both get uncommented downvotes for opposite reasons... – Jon Hanna Feb 6 '13 at 22:14
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    Have you ever seen a rule stipulating that what goes inside parentheses must be a (traditionally-defined, ie leave-a-syntactically-acceptable-and-not-grossly-semantically-changed-if-deleted-) parenthesis? Or did nobody see this one coming? – Edwin Ashworth Feb 6 '13 at 22:33
  • I'd say it depends on how you want to treat the first comma. If it is a list of people that are blind (making the first comma an 'oxford comma' if I'm not mistaken) you are indeed correct to use 'were' as your subject is now "zoe and the other kids". If it is the start of a "parenthetical element", then the subject is still Zoe. – Nanne Feb 7 '13 at 13:23

To me it would have seemed more natural to have written ‘were completely blinded’.

You are right. Dan Ariely’s sentence does not seem natural regardless of the punctuation. The answer to your question has to do with what reading is – well, what readers do. And it turns out that neuroscientists now know one very interesting thing about reading which explains exactly how Dan’s sentence is problematic : reading uses the same parts of your brain that are used in speech production and listening, notably Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, and uses them in the same way.

Diagram of the brain showing the location of Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.

It makes sense that the same parts of your brain are used for reading, listening, and speech, because you are using the same vocabulary and grammar for all three activities. But what’s interesting is that reusing the same parts of your brain means reading, listening, and speaking are mostly the same thing. When you read, you can meaningfully say you are speaking the words to yourself and listening to them in order to make sense of them. The observation that we sometimes “hear” a text in our own voice as we read it is not an illusion, or even a side effect : it is fundamental to how we do language.

Not only that, but reading, listening, and speaking all light up other parts of your brain which deal with memory and imagination, and they all do it in the same way. As you read, you create mental simulations of the narrative that involve multiple senses and include creative imaginings of things which are not even mentioned. Whether you speak of cheese, hear of cheese, or read about cheese, you see, smell, and taste the cheese. You even see where it is – perhaps on a cheese-board, or in your hand – regardless of whether that detail is in the narrative. As you read a text, you are continually adding to your mental simulation, and this helps you notice when something does not make sense.

When a text does not follow the same rules as speech, the result is confusion : it seems wrong because reading is a form of listening and of speech. You stumble over the text as you would if you were speaking the words aloud or listening to them.

This is what happened when you read Dan Ariely’s sentence. You heard

Zoe and the other kids to whom I offered the same deal was completely blinded by

and by the time you got to was you had already built up a mental simulation of the first part of the sentence with some kids (plural) in it. Your brain had trouble making was (singular) fit with this mental picture. To describe this situation we say there is an error in subject-verb agreement.

I agree that Dan Ariely intended the commas to delimit a parenthesis, a remark which you insert into the middle of a sentence as if you are interrupting yourself. A parenthesis contributes to the meaning of the sentence but interrupts and stands outside its syntax. Wikipedia derives the word from the Greek παρένθεσις, meaning “to place alongside of”.

The remark

and the other kids to whom I offered the same deal

will work as a parenthesis if you hear it like one when you speak it to yourself. The trouble is that it also happens to work within the syntax of the sentence, leading you down the garden path until you encounter the word was. Commas are not always enough to cue a parenthesis. Dan should have used round brackets (parentheses) – or even dashes – to guide the reader to treat the interruption as an interruption.

Further Reading

2009 Cook/Dehaene Scientific AmericanYour Brain on Books : Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene explains his quest to understand how the mind makes sense of written language”.
2011 Stafford/Blackburne “What happens in the brain when you read : A Conversation with Livia Blackburne”.
2012 Bergen Louder Than Words : The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning.
2012 Paul The New York TimesYour Brain on Fiction”.
2013 “scicurious” Neurotic Physiology (blog) “Silent reading isn’t so silent, at least, not to your brain”.
2013 WikipediaBroca’s area”.
2013 WikipediaWernicke’s area”.
2013 WikipediaParenthesis (rhetoric)”.


That's always a tough one for me. I write for the ear as much as for the eye, and regardless of what set of marks is employed, commas or parentheses or dashes, “A, and B, was” just sounds wrong. There is no punctuation in speech. Others, however—your author among them—believe that in writing, bracketing out a phrase or clause removes it from surrounding syntactical constraints.

I don’t think there is a solution which will satisfy everybody. My solution is to sidestep, to write something on the order of:

[...] Zoe, like the other kids to whom I offered the same deal, was completely blinded by [...]

In grammar, as in other matters, hard cases make bad law. Avoid them.

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    I have to love how we came to different conclusions on how to resolve the conflict of rules in the question, but the same conclusion that sidestepping is the way to go. – Jon Hanna Feb 6 '13 at 22:07
  • @JonHanna Matthew 7:13-14 – StoneyB Feb 6 '13 at 22:21

It's parenthetical; act like it isn't there and treat the subject as singular.

That said, this sort of mismatch is going to irritate someone, no matter which decision you go for. That someone might even be you! I'm not even talking about people who complain about grammar; they're fine, they like complaining about grammar! I'm more considering that "wait, is that right" isn't a reaction you normally want from your readers. At he same time, parenthetical clauses either don't give us much, in which case we can cut them out the moment they give us any trouble, or they give us something important, in which case they should perhaps be promoted from their parenthetical position and made independent clauses on their own. So it might be worth avoiding for that reason.


The 'was' is correct, because the original subject who was blinded was Zoe. The commas are there to provide a break in the sentence. Learnt this from my publisher, who was always re-wording these for me!

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    Your publisher is, of course, a magisterial authority. Unhappily, his magisterium does not extend beyond his own authors. If you change publishers you may have to unlearn this principle. – StoneyB Feb 6 '13 at 22:19
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    Yes - magisterium has a half-life measured in weeks. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 7 '13 at 15:14

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