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In this sentence:

It’s not our lack of answers to these problems that causes us such pain.

My word processor tells me that "causes" should be in the plural form "cause", but I'm thinking the subject is "lack," and, therefore, singular. Am I wrong?

16

I agree, it's not the answers (plural) that "cause" has to agree with, it's "the lack of answers...". You have A LACK OF something, so the singular verb form is correct.

It's not the lack of funds that causes me such pain, it's the lack of fun.

I'd like to see what the grammarian behind that grammar checker has to say.

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  • 12
    Grammar checkers are algorithmic in nature, and I've never seen one that would't miss the occasional edge case like this. Here, it seems to have mistaken plural "answers" for the subject of the sentence, when it's actually part of an adjective phrase that modifies "lack". Lack is singular.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Sep 27 at 18:54
  • ZeissIkon -- completely agree with your analysis
    – user8356
    Sep 27 at 18:57
  • Thanks, all! I also agree with the analysis, especially after tweaking the sentence and seeing that the word processor is inconsistent in its findings / application of its algos. Sep 27 at 20:33
10

There's some ambiguity in the sentence, and this seems to be causing the grammar checker to misparse it.

The intended parse is

It’s not our (lack of (answers to these problems)) that causes us such pain.

"lack of XXX" is a singular subject, so a singular verb is appropriate.

But I think it's parsing it as

It’s not our lack of (answers to these (problems that causes us such pain)).

In this case, "problems" is the subject of the last clause, so a plural verb would be appropriate.

It could be even a simpler mistake, it may just scan back to the closest noun, and assume that's the subject of the verb. Parsing English is hard, especially with nested clauses and prepositional phrases.

1
  • I like your use of parentheses to explain the clause the word "cause(s)" applies to! (Voted)
    – Duncan C
    Sep 29 at 20:42
2

I think the confusion is that the word processor is suggesting using 'causes' instead of 'cause' - and you are assuming that it is because it is adding the 's' to make it plural.

However, 's' can be added to show that it is a persistent condition NOW, rather than in the future or past.

So:

  • He will run tomorrow.
  • He runs out the door now.
  • That horse runs a good race. (Not in the future or even particularly now - just a general 'this is the type of horse it is)

And:

  • It will cause us much pain tomorrow.
  • It causes us much pain now.
  • The knowledge of our mortality causes us much pain. (A general statement about humanity)

The example you gave makes perfect sense if the 's' suffix is used to talk about the 'now' (rather than future or past), or as a general statement about humanity.

The word processor is correct - unless you meant 'will cause us such pain' (future) or 'caused us much pain' (past).

-- Mac

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  • 6
    Actually, the word processor is suggesting 'cause' instead of 'causes' (and is therefore incorrect). Also, I don't really understand your examples - the cases with 'will' don't seem relevant to the question. The word processor seems to be suggesting the equivalent of "He run out the door now". Sep 28 at 7:09
  • Hmm .... it appears that I misread the question. I read "My word processor tells me that (word) should be in the plural form .. but I'm thinking the subject is "lack," and, therefore, singular" as meaning "My word processor is suggesting a plural, but I think it should be singular" The examples with 'Will' were just to fill out the pattern - you are right that only the ''end in s' examples were the match to the question. If the word processor is suggesting not having the 's' suffix, then it is wrong. But I think it is clear that it isn't a matter of 'plural'. Sep 28 at 13:37
  • 1
    I mean, the word processor was suggesting the plural verb form 'cause', instead of the singular form 'causes'. Sep 28 at 19:16

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