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The construction of this sentence is bothering me. Is it grammatically well formed? If not, what is the correct alternative?

... a prime example of how terrible Marina Sirtis and how good Brent Spiner were in their respective roles.

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    Do you have any specific problem with the sentence? What exactly is bothering you and why didn't you provide the complete sentence?
    – Helmar
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 19:28
  • As Helmar said, it would help if you provided more specific information about what's bothering you. John Rakoczy thought it was the verb "were," and that also seems the most likely point of confusion to me, but you never indicate this in your post.
    – herisson
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 23:23

2 Answers 2

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a prime example of how terrible Marina Sirtis and how good Brent Spiner were
in their respective roles

There are two Wh-clauses (both starting with how), and both have subjects (Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner) that are singular noun phrases; the Wh-clauses they are the subjects of are conjoined with and into something like

  • a prime example of
     [how terrible Marina Sirtis was, and how good Brent Spiner was
    ]

But we haven't mentioned the last phrase yet -- in their respective roles. If we put that after the conjoined clauses above,

  • how terrible Marina Sirtis was, and how good Brent Spiner was, in their respective roles

it seems to cause a problem. Several problems.

First, why do we need a respective phrase at all? If you are talking about two people who are doing different things and judging them both, you have to judge each in their own role.

For instance, if I review a movie, I might say that one actress was very good, but another actress was not. Obviously, each of them would be playing a different role; they couldn't be playing the same role. So nothing need be said about their roles; in such cases, it's usually best to say nothing.

Second, how do we get from singular was to plural were? This is where the problem comes from.

In its simplest form, the rule of Conjunction Reduction deletes repeated material in conjoined clauses. The material can be subject, object, or both,

  • Bill washed the dishes and Bill swept the floor ==>
    Bill washed the dishes and swept the floor.
  • Bill washed the dishes and Mary dried the dishes ==>
    Bill washed and Mary dried the dishes.
  • Bill washed the dishes and Bill dried the dishes ==>
    Bill washed and dried the dishes.

    ... or something else altogether

  • Bill is tired and Mary is tired ==>
    Bill and Mary are tired.

And here's where the are shows up. If conjunction reduction results in a conjoined subject
A and B, like Bill and Mary, then the subject is plural, and governs plural agreement with were.

But that's not what happens in the example sentence. The subject there is conjoined,
but it's not two conjoined noun phrases -- it's two conjoined _Wh-_clauses:

  • [how terrible Marina Sirtis was] and [how good Brent Spiner was]

which come from

  • [M.S. was terrible to degree X] and [B.S. was good to degree Y]

If we attempt to apply conjunction reduction to this, we get

  • [M.S. was terrible to degree X] and [B.S. good to degree Y]

because was is the only repeated word, except the degree quantifier that becomes how terrible/good. At no point is there any conjoined plural noun phrase [M.S. and B.S.],
so there is no reason for plural were.

That's what's bothering you. A rule's been applied where it shouldn't've been.

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Simple answer based upon the fragment presented: the adverbs are separated and require separate verbs.

"... a prime example of (both) how terrible Marina Sirtis was, and how good Brent Spiner was in their respective roles."

or

"... a prime example of how (the performance was) terrible for Marina Sirtis and how good (it was for) Brent Spiner in their respective roles."

(love Brent Spiner by the way)

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    Or you might even go whole-hog with even "...how terrible Marina Sirtis was in her role and how good Brent Spiner was in his."
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 2:52
  • @SvenYargs I actually like the complete disambiguation in your version. Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 4:23
  • @svenyargs yes, I like your whole-hog version even better. It's what I meant to say ;)
    – user191580
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 13:50

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