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Given the following example sentence:

The secondary effect of ability X and ability Y has been reworked.

I'm not really sure what to make of the subject-verb agreement here.

In this case, is the subject truly the singular "secondary effect"?

Or should this be read as "secondary effect of ability X and [secondary effect of] ability Y" and thus take a plural verb?

It occurs to me that the easy answer is that the sentence probably should be rewritten to be unambiguous, i.e.

The secondary effects of ability X and ability Y have been reworked.

But this makes me wonder if "secondary effect of ability X and ability Y" is even grammatical in the first place, given that the secondary effects of each ability are distinct.

tl;dr
Is the subject singular or plural?
Is the subject even grammatically correct to begin with?

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  • Hello, e_g. This is related to 'joint possession': John and Sally's car // John and Sally's cars (the cars belonging jointly to the pair) // John's and Sally's cars (John's car/s and Sally's car/s). //// 'The effect of X and Y' means that X and Y jointly cause a single effect. 'The effects of X and Y' is ambiguous. //// I can't see where effect / effects wouldn't force the usual verb agreement. Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 20:23
  • Do you know if there is a single effect that has been reworked? Are there different effects that have been reworked? There is your answer. Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 20:34
  • The secondary effect of gin and tonic is known. Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 3:41

1 Answer 1

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It is true that the meanings of the subject ("the secondary effect") and the preposition ("of") apply to both conjuncts. That's why people sometimes say that you can duplicate them after the conjunction:

The secondary effect of ability X and the secondary effect of ability Y [has/have] been reworked.

However, that suggestion is a bit misleading, because the subject is not really part of the second conjunct. In other words, we do NOT have two effects. To see that that is the case, consider:

The person with the black hat and the brown shoes [copula] tall.

We would never (as far as I'm aware) infer that that meant

The person with the black hat and the person with the brown shoes are tall.

There is only one effect, modified by a prepositional phrase, and both conjuncts (which are actually "ability X" and "ability Y") are complements of the preposition.1

Note that if "the secondary effects of each ability are distinct", then the sentence would probably be better written with a plural subject:

The secondary effects of ability X and ability Y have been reworked.


1 By the way, I'd argue that the preposition is also not part of the second conjunct, although it could be duplicated with no problem, since prepositions do not possess properties such as "number" that can complicate things.

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