Daily Archives: October 7, 2010

Tag-teaming without coordination

I read the following in a New York Times article, “Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery“: “A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have apparently interacted to cause the problem.”

Does that sentence read a bit funny to you? It should. The fact that there are two things acting together does not automatically make them a compound subject – don’t mistake semantics for syntax. The phrase tag-teaming with is not a syntactic equivalent of and. It is not a conjunction; it is a non-finite verb phrase headed by a present participle. It has as a complement a prepositional phrase headed by with, and the complement of that prepositional phrase is the noun phrase a virus:

[NP A fungus {VP tag-teaming [PP with {NP a virus}]}]

The structure is the same as, for instance, An archbishop speaking to an actress or A dog barking at a car. Everything after the first noun is modifying the first noun, not coordinating with it. (Here’s a big tip: any time you see a preposition before a noun, you know that the noun and preposition modify what’s before them – meaning that they are not the main noun in town!)

Would you write An archbishop speaking to an actress have fallen down the stairs, or A dog barking at a car have run into a hydrant? Nope. So you don’t write A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have interacted. The fact that the fungus and the virus are working together doesn’t change the syntactic structure, which, at its core, is subject fungus and verb has interacted. I’ll say it again: never confuse semantics with syntax.

(And never look to newspapers for grammatical guidance. They make all sorts of silly mistakes. Sometimes it’s because they’re on tight timelines and sometimes it’s because they’re inappropriately applying rules they haven’t thought through well enough.)