Grammatical mistake?

Paul and I have had a debate about the following copy. I think there’s a grammatical mistake in it, Paul thinks it looks like a mistake but sounds right, and hence isn’t really a mistake. His client agrees with him. This is really interesting because in my mind, this is an example of something which is, technically, a grammatical mistake, but which is so embedded in usage that native speakers see it as correct. Or is it? Can you spot it?

We work with stone. We make stone work for you.

We select it, shape it and design ways in which stone can become your own statement of creativity and enduring permanence, in your home or in your business.

Our experience and love affair with stone spans fifty years. We employ the most skilled stonemasons who have had an association with stone almost all of their working lives.

We welcome enquiries from private individuals and the commercial sector, we regularly enjoy close creative partnerships with designers and architects, and we offer a trade service to fireplace retailers. Projects can range from individual homes to major corporate installations.

Applications are limited only by your imagination.

By | 2016-10-18T15:50:24+00:00 July 27th, 2006|Technical corner|18 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Paul Sharville July 27, 2006 at 4:22 pm

    In my defence (if I need one), there are often judgement calls to be made when it comes to whether or not to break the rules. I also specialise in writing quite informal ‘chatty’ copy, where the latitude for bending rules tends to be greater than with more formal writing. I would rather opt for ‘reader comfort’ on most occasions. Of course, the problem with that is that ‘reader comfort’ is highly subjective depending on whether you’re a south London boy like me or a linguistic pedant who breaks into a cold sweat at split infinitives or sentences starting with ‘and’ or ‘but’ (which, by the way, were good enough for George Eliot and The Bible).

  2. Margaret July 27, 2006 at 5:26 pm

    Irritating – I can’t see anything! I would put a comma after ‘stonemasons’, but that sort of thing is often left out. I don’t always like the style: ‘projects can range from individual homes…’ – I presume they mean a project *in* an individual home, not building a home, so the project is not the home. But writing it this way sounds more down-to-earth. I don’t like ‘enduring permanence’, but that’s a deliberate stylistic tactic.
    I can’t help feeling I’m blind – at least Paul sees it, but I see nothing!

  3. Marri July 27, 2006 at 7:20 pm

    All I can see is the word ‘spans’- I’m pretty sure it should be ‘span,’ since there’s a compound subject. Other than that, I’m with Margaret and just as completely clueless. ^_^

  4. David July 28, 2006 at 10:26 am

    I can’t spot the mistake, but something I don’t like is “in your business”. It jars for some reason.

  5. Margaret July 28, 2006 at 10:41 am

    Marri: yes, you must be right about ‘spans’. Well, Quirk says ‘some latitude is allowed in the case of [two] abstract nouns’ (10.39), but the examples given there are less extreme (fairness and impartiality, calmness and confidence, law and order: singular or plural verb both acceptable). Still, I think it’s OK.

  6. MM July 28, 2006 at 10:45 am

    Actually, if things are ’embedded in usage’ they become correct, don’t they?
    I don’t think the plural would be right in this case, as the writer sees the two qualities as closely linked.

  7. Paul Sharville July 28, 2006 at 11:14 am

    Fantastic! My own team of editors! Now, where did I put that 36-page brochure?

  8. Paul Sharville July 28, 2006 at 11:25 am

    Spans (or span) it is. Well spotted. However, some of the other suggested changes (‘in your business’, ‘projects can range from individual homes…’) may well make it into the final draft. Thank you for those. ‘Down-to-earth’ as Margaret puts it, is a very appropriate phrase to use for the tone of this job, as it’s for a stonemason.

  9. céline July 28, 2006 at 11:37 am

    I think it depends on how you read the sentence and its subject: yesterday, the only way I could read it was “[Our experience] [and love affair with stone] spans fifty years”. To me, that was two distinct subjects, hence plural, hence should have read “span”. However today, for some reason I’m reading “[Our experience and love affair with stone] spans fifty years”. One subject, singular, “spans”.
    I think this is due to the close link mentioned by Margaret: “with stone” can indeed refer back to both “love affair” and “experience”, uniting this section of the sentence into one singular subject.

  10. Jean July 28, 2006 at 11:54 am

    I think your first reaction was correct, Celine. I didn’t spot it though. And I’m not surprised I didn’t since the whole passage is – for my taste – so pretentiously overwritten! I love stone, but this would not sell me on their services. The tautology of ‘enduring permanence’ is the worst, but not the least, of it.

  11. Jean July 28, 2006 at 11:58 am

    Yikes, on rereading, I think that perhaps Paul actually *wrote* this copy?! Sorry. It’s the heat. I’m tired and crabby. This is not to my taste. Sorry for being rude, though.

  12. Paul Sharville July 28, 2006 at 12:15 pm

    What, even with a 50% discount on stone and stone-related products for visitors to Celine’s blog? No offence taken. It’s also being read out of context. There is a lot of copy that deals with product details, types of available stone, etc. This is the ‘hook’ copy for the homepage of the website, so it will always be more ‘showy’ than the rest of the copy. Nevertheless, the ‘enduring permanence’ of writing (and the debate it generates) is due in part to its subjectivity. Long may it continue.

  13. michael farris July 29, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    I didn’t spot ‘spans’ until the second (close) reading. But spans sounds definitely better to me (US native speaker), ‘span’ would sound bizarre.
    My take on _why_ ‘spans’ is better is different though, to me ‘our experience and love affair’ are equated, making them (sort of) a single subject maybe because they both are followed by the same preposition (with, experience with and love affair with). But even if the prepositions differ, then I’d still go with ‘spans’: Our knowledge of and experience with stone spans fifty years.
    I think it might just be the well-known tendency in real (as opposed to school) English for the noun closest to the verb (as opposed to the subject per se) to determine agreement. In my usage, I’d go with:
    Our knowledge of and experiences with stone span fifty years.
    Our experiences with and knowledge of stone spans fifty years.

  14. Stephen Gobin August 1, 2006 at 11:14 am

    Apart from the “span” issue and the tautology of “enduring permanence”, it is Jean who has hit the nail on the head for more important reasons. Problems of grammar and syntax can be remedied before final publication, but the whole document (I guess it is a translation from a Romance language) is “clunky” for an English-speaking target readership. Mention of “love affairs” and “associations” is, I believe, far too poetic-(ally French??) and issues such as these need to be toned down for English-speaking readers. This is where the craftsmanship of translation really kicks in and to achieve “reader ease”, the translator has to look at the whole “package”. And when it comes to (website) advertising copy this means having to rewrite whole sections in order to come as close as possible to hitting the target for the intended readership.

  15. céline August 1, 2006 at 11:33 am

    Stephen, this isn’t a translation. I think it is important to remember that a copywriter is normally given a very specific brief at the beginning of a job. Whatever anyone may think of the style here, and opinions about style are obviously highly subjective, this is the tone the client asked for. Whether it is appropriate to the subject matter or not is obviously debatable, but it doesn’t really matter, the client always knows best!

  16. Bela August 9, 2006 at 1:56 pm

    I think Stephen Gobin’s comment is revelatory of a lot of people’s attitude towards translation: he found the text “clunky” and assumed therefore it was a translation. I recently heard someone say – about a piece of translated writing – “It reads like a translation.” Well, no, in this case, the person should have said, “It reads like a ‘bad’ translation.” I would love for the word “translation” not to automatically mean “awkward writing”, since I’m sure we translators very often improve on the original texts.
    I’m not very bothered by “spans”, although I would use the grammatically correct “span”, but “enduring permanence” makes me cringe.

  17. Martin Dufresne August 21, 2006 at 7:20 am

    Like Michael, I am fine with the singular for “span” since the gist of this copy is to make experience and love affair into a single entity:
    Margaret Shertzer, The Elements of Grammar, p. 22:
    “A subject consisting of two or more nouns or pronouns connected by *and* takes a plural predicate unless the nouns refer to the same person *or express a single idea*.”
    Examples given:
    “The sum and substance of the matter is that our firm remains in a prosperous condition. (single idea)
    My friend and adviser suggests I take a business course (one person).”
    But I think it would be a mistake to pluralize the word ce” as Michael does in his suggestion. An oversight?

  18. Martin Dufresne August 21, 2006 at 7:23 am

    Like Michael, I feel that this ad copy tend to make “experience” and “love affair” into a single entity here. making the singular more appropriate:
    Margaret Shertzer, The Elements of Grammar, p. 22:
    “A subject consisting of two or more nouns or pronouns connected by *and* takes a plural predicate unless the nouns refer to the same person *or express a single idea*.”
    Examples given:
    The sum and substance of the matter is that our firm remains in a prosperous condition. (single idea)
    My friend and adviser suggests I take a business course (one person).”
    But “experience” should not be pluralized as he suggests.

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