Self-correcting inelegance

“Many terror suspects sought by the United States, including the preacher Abu Hamza, have argued that the threat that the United States will hold them in isolation in super-maximum security prisons or at the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba, and the possibility of the death penalty, constitute a human rights violation.”
Ravi Somaiya and John F. Burns “European Court Rules Britain Cannot Deport Terrorism Suspect” The New York Times  W 18 January 2012  p. A4.

This sentence – compound as well as complex – puzzles me syntactically.

Consider the skeleton:

Many terror suspects … have argued
that
the threat 
that the United States will hold them
in isolation in super-maximum security prisons
or
at the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba,
and
the possibility
of the death penalty,
constitute a human rights violation.

My problem is that while the compound and therefore plural subject (‘threat … possibility’) of the subordinate ‘that’-clause does have the correct plural verb ‘constitute’, the predicate ‘violation’ is singular!  Surely ‘threat’ and ‘possibility’ are two distinct subjects and must therefore, strictly considered, have a plural predicate ‘violations’ and not the singular, as printed.

Of course, if you understand the compound subject ‘threat … possibility’ as a kind of hendiadys (a real stretch in my view!), you could possibly (?) write something like the following:

‘… the threat … and the possibility … constitutes a … violation.’

But, as I say, I don’t much care for that kind of coercion exercised on the two nouns – in all their innocence.

Alternatively, you could write something like the following:

‘… the threat … and the possibility … constitute … violations.’

I am quite certain my puzzlement is entirely justified, for obviously it also puzzled the post-production editorial staff of the Times:  the epigraph is what I copied from the print edition (delivered around 5:30 AM in Iowa City IA) for Wednesday 18 Jan 2012, but the electronic edition found on the internet (which I sourced around 21:00 that evening) here does in fact make the very corrections that I urge above, and prints exactly as I suggested in the alternate above: ‘… the threat … and the possibility … constitute … violations.’

Thus, shame on them for not catching this syntactic mess pre-print-publication;  thus, kudos to them for catching and correcting this syntactic mess post-print-publication.

This entry was posted in LANGUAGE and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Self-correcting inelegance

  1. The sentence is so cumbersome I am amazed someone didn’t catch it before it went to press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s