I was interested in the following sentence which appeared in an article by Andrew C. Rewkin titled “Misperceived Paths to Energy Savings" in The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, (August 17, 2010).

It is difficult to identify the actual energy someone saves by turning off the light each time they leave the room, for a few reasons: the types of lights people use varies, it’s difficult to measure how many times the lights are turned on and off per day, and if the behavior has been maintained over the long-term.

Can someone clarify if the fragment "the types of lights people use varies" is ungrammatical, as I think it is?

I would reword "varies" with "vary", but I'm not sure on this correction because I'm not able to identify the subject of the verb.

(Apologize in advanced if the question is not good for this site. If so, please delete. Thank you.)

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    Identifying the subject of the verb (types) isn't even necessary — every noun in that phrase is plural: types, lights, even people. – RegDwigнt Jun 5 '12 at 19:27
  • @RegDwightΒВBẞ8 - I'm not sure on what you say. However, it would be interesting to hear what (do) you think of whiteraimbow's answer(?). – Elberich Schneider Jun 5 '12 at 19:43

I believe that you are right and that "the types of lights people use varies" is ungrammatical. If we parse this fragment, we get two clauses, the main clause "the types of lights vary" and the subordinate relative clause "(which/that) people use", where which/that is the object of the verb use and has been omitted. The sentence in the article is a mistake which could have been avoided with careful proofreading.


The subject is the entire phrase, i.e. [the types of lights people use] varies. The 3rd person is correct in this case. If you were to reword it as a phrase where the subject was plural, e.g. [the types of lights] vary you'd need to use the plural verb form. That's probably where the confusion comes from. Replace the phrase with a pronoun and you'll see, e.g. [it] varies vs [they] vary.

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    On what basis do you conclude that [the types of lights people use] is singular? That is a NP (noun phrase) with head "lights", which is plural, so the whole NP is plural. – Colin Fine Jun 5 '12 at 22:44
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    The head here is "types" and not "lights", since the "types" are what vary. It doesn't matter, though, they're both plural. – Peter Shor Jun 6 '12 at 0:41
  • its not an NP, it's a VP or CP. [[the [types of lights]] (that) [people use]]. If you use the NP (as in my second example) you can see it takes the plural verb form, because in that example the head is 'types'. I think this may be an example of phrasal raising, because the object of the verb 'use' is clearly 'the types of lights'. Or it may be a bit like a gerund (c.f. 'people's use of lights varies' which I think is right over 'vary'). So by analogy with the gerund I think people would use 'varies', but by analogy with the NP they would use vary. Looking at it again I'd say it's ambiguous. – whiterainbow Jul 5 '12 at 10:52

The "types of lights people use" should be viewed as a singular thing. "Type of light" would have been a less ambiguous way to phrase the sentence, since "types of lights" would automatically be a varied commodity by extension of logic. Therefore the 3rd person singular form of the verb makes better sense in this case.

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    How can types of anything be viewed as a singular thing? – Andrew Leach May 2 '13 at 20:08
  • The same way "games people play" is the title of a song, or should it be "are" the title of a song? – grammarpolice May 2 '13 at 20:22

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