A few weeks ago I got an excellent question from a Habit Weekly reader named Todd Thurston. His question came in response to my discussion of subordinating conjunctions during a three-week series on clauses. I had been talking about the fact that subordinating conjunctions (like when or because) are one way of joining one clause to another:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder, I am sad.
  • I am sad because the squirrel raids my bird feeder. 

Those subordinating conjunctions when and because turn the independent clause “The squirrel raids my bird feeder” into a dependent clause that can’t stand alone as a sentence. These are now sentence fragments:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
  • Because the squirrel raids my bird feeder.

In response, Todd wrote:

If someone asked me the question – “why are you so sad?”  Could my answer not be “Because the squirrel raids my bird feeder”? Or if a questioner says “At what point do you find you are most sad?”  might I say “When the squirrel raids my bird feeder”?   If those are proper answers then are they standing alone as a sentence? or are they incorrect altogether?

I love this question–or, rather questions. I’ll take them one at a time:

  • If those are proper answers, then are they standing alone as a sentence?

These dependent clauses (“Because the squirrels…” and “When the squirrels…”) are indeed proper answers. But no, they still aren’t sentences.

  • or are they incorrect altogether?

While it is true that our dependent clauses aren’t complete sentences, that doesn’t mean they are incorrect altogether. Otherwise, native speakers of English would be altogether incorrect most of the time. It is perfectly normal and acceptable to answer questions with sentence fragments, whatever you were told in elementary school. It is so normal, in fact, that I would be suspicious of a person who always answered questions in complete sentences.

Terence: Why are you so sad?
Wendy: I am sad because my bird feeder is empty.
Terence: At what point do you find you are most sad?
Wendy: I find I am most sad when the squirrel raids my bird feeder.

I wouldn’t blame Terence if he began at this point to suspect that Wendy is a cyborg or possibly a foreign spy–somebody who did not learn English by having healthy relationships with native speakers of English.

I read a story once about a Russian spy who got caught when the interrogators asked him to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” in its entirety. He thought he was doing a great job because he made it through the third verse without getting any words wrong. But, of course, that was how they got him: what American knows three verses of “The Star Spangled Banner”? There is such a thing as being too correct. It’s helpful to know that a subordinating conjunction turns an independent clause into a sentence fragment. But when it comes down to a choice between being technically correct and sounding like a robot-spy, I know which one I’m going to choose.

All this reminds me of a Facebook conversation I participated in a while back. My friend Abe Goolsby (who illustrated The Bark of the Bog Owl and The Charlatan’s Boy) asked the following question about subject-verb agreement:

Please help me get straight once and for all on the following:

  1. Lynrd Skynrd have/has agreed to perform at my nephew’s bar mitzvah.
  2.  A gang of notorious outlaws decide/decides to improve their/its standing in the community by providing security for the annual Sunshine and Daisy Glitter Club Bake Sale.

This is a question about collective nouns, and one’s treatment of collective nouns depends on what country one lives in. In the United States, we treat collective nouns as singular, so we would say “Lynyrd Skynyrd has agreed…” and “A gang of notorious outlaws decides to improve its standing…” In the United Kingdom, where people also speak English (or, in any case, a variety of English), collective nouns are treated as plural: “Lynyrd Skynyrd have agreed…” and “A gang of notorious outlaws decide to improve their standing…”

I’m not sure how Canadians handle collective nouns. I know they indulge in a few British misspellings, including neighbourhumour, and centre, but I don’t know whose side they’re on with respect to collective nouns. Canadians readers, enlighten me.

But the real reason I brought up this somewhat arcane point of grammar is to put this and all grammar questions into a larger context. I always tell my writing students that the best thing is to stay out of situations in which your reader will even think about your grammar. In American usage, “a gang of notorious outlaws decides” is technically right, but your reader will most certainly pause to think about whether you’re right. And that pause is itself a problem. So I’d probably go with something like “A notorious outlaw gang decides…” or “The notorious outlaws decide…”

All things being equal, correct grammar is better than incorrect grammar. But the best grammar is invisible grammar–the kind your reader doesn’t have to think about one way or another.