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25.03.2015 General News

Literary Discourse: 'Criteria': Victim of Grammatical Assault

By Abubakar Mohammed Marzuq Azindoo, Coordinator of Students and University Relations, University of Applied Management
Literary Discourse: 'Criteria': Victim of Grammatical Assault
LISTEN MAR 25, 2015

The English speaking community in Ghana is often bombarded with sentences such as: “This is the best CRITERIA.” “A better CRITERIA is needed.” What is the CRITERIA of selecting the award winners?” These and similar constructions in relation to CRITERIA are seemingly of no bounds in the use of English as a Second Language (ESL) in the country. They are prevalent in Academic English, in Journalistic Reportage, in Business Communication, in Court Proceedings, in Political Discussion, in Interpersonal Conversation. Are they grammatically correct? NO!


Each of the sentences under review violates two fundamental principles of grammar: Number and Concord. Number is about plurality and singularity, and Concord deals with subject-verb or pronoun-antecedent agreement. There are other varieties of Concord such as Notional and Proximity Concord, but this analysis is emphatic on the subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent Concord.

The word CRITERIA is plural, but it is misapplied as singular in all the sentences in question. The singular form of CRITERIA is CRITERION, which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of English as “a principle or standard by which something may be judged or decided.” The dictionary further describes as “a common mistake to use criteria as if it were a plural.” This explains that whenever CRITERIA is used as singular, the principle of Number is violated. This violation automatically leads to the Error of Concord, in which a plural subject is “forced” to agree with a singular verb or a singular subject is “forced” to agree with a plural verb.  As hinted earlier, sometimes the Error of Concord involves wrong pronouns with wrong antecedents. The antecedent of a pronoun is the word the pronoun refers to.

Grammatical analysis
We need to analyze the sentences under review to establish their grammatical invalidity and to ensure correction. Let us then restate them one after the other:

This is the best CRITERIA.
Grammatical Analysis: In this sentence the subject is the demonstrative pronoun “this” which is singular. The linking verb is “is”, also singular. The antecedent of the pronoun is certainly CRITERIA which is plural: automatic error of pronoun – antecedent concord.

Correction: there are two ways of correcting the sentence. We can replace CRITERIA with CRITERION to agree with the singular pronoun and the singular verb as in: This is the best CRITERION. Alternatively, we can maintain CRITERIA, but change “this” to “these” and “is” to “are.” The result will then be: These are the best CRITERIA. In this construction, a plural pronoun “these” accompanied by a plural verb “are” agrees with a plural antecedent “CRITERIA.” And the Error of Concord is avoided!

A better CRITERIA is needed.
Grammatical Analysis: Here we are dealing with a passive sentence in which CRITERIA is the subject. But CRITERIA is wrongly preceded by a singular indefinite article “a” and wrongly followed by a singular linking verb “is.” Clearly, the rule of subject-verb agreement is disregarded.

Correction: Again we have two ways of fixing the problem. We can strike out “a”, maintain CRITERIA and replace “is” with “are”. The result will be: Better CRITERIA are needed. Now we have CRITERIA [plural] agreeing with ARE [plural]. We can also simply replace CRITERIA with CRITERION as in: A better CRITERION is needed. This way, a singular noun as subject [CRITERION] agrees with a singular verb [IS].

What is the CRITERIA of selecting the award winners?

Grammatical Analysis: This is an interrogative sentence that contains the interrogative pronoun “what” as subject. It is important to state that “what” can be singular or plural depending on the context. But in this context the linking verb “is” indicates that “what” is used as subject in its singular sense. CRITERIA is, therefore, the antecedent of the pronoun “what.” So, the result is a singular pronoun (and a singular verb) with a plural antecedent. That is a clear case of pronoun – antecedent fracture.

Correction: there are two CRITERIA of correcting this grammatical anomaly. The first CRITERION is to simply replace “is” with “are” as in: What are the CRITERIA of selecting the award winners? In that case an interrogative pronoun in a plural sense [what] agrees with a plural antecedent [CRITERIA]. The agreement is firmly grounded by the plural linking verb [ARE]. The second one is to change CRITERIA to CRITERION as in: What is the CRITERION of selecting the award winners. This way, an interrogative pronoun in a singular sense [what] agrees with a singular antecedent [CRITERION] with the help of a singular linking verb [IS].

Summing up, we reiterate our humble position that error analysis is not a mark of knowledge. It is rather an attempt to remind language users of the need to be mindful of grammatical rules and to avoid miscommunication. Although errors must be avoided, they are not necessarily evil in language education and usage. Experts of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) believe that errors play essential roles in teaching and learning. To the teacher, errors constitute some CRITERIA of measuring learner comprehension, reviewing the course outline, and adjusting the teaching methodology. To the learner, errors serve as opportunities of improvement, areas of emphasis, and appetite for success (in exams). Therefore, it stands to reason that a person's ignorance is not determined by the number of errors he or she commits, but by the number of times he or she fails to learn from the errors. It is pertinent to observe that the errors under review are related to certain nouns of special plurality which will constitute the next topic of your favorite Literary Discourse.

God is the Best Error Analyst.
Bybee, J. Perkins, R., & Pagliuca, W. (1994).  The evolution of grammar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Greebaum, S. (1991). An introduction to English grammar. Harlow: Longman.

Halliday, M. A. K. (2004). An introduction to functional grammar. (3 rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oxford dictionary of English. (2010). (3 rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

By Abubakar Mohammed Marzuq Azindoo, Coordinator of Students and University Relations, University of Applied Management (UAM), Germany – Ghana Campus, McCarthy Hill, Accra and Tamale

Email: [email protected] Tell: 0244755402

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