Last year, I had the pleasure of copyediting a book by a local musician. Just before the book was going to print, a well-known author, who was an acquaintance of the musician, submitted a blurb to be included in the book. I was asked by the publisher to quickly review the paragraph before the book was sent to the printer.
This is not an ideal situation, being rushed, and I was nervous anyway about finding something I thought needed changing and not being able to confer with the author. Sure enough, I spotted a phrase I had encountered in the past that was potentially problematic.
The phrase was a construction like this: “All I have to offer are passages from a book.” At first glance, this might seem completely fine. However, I had read once that in this type of situation “All I have to offer” is considered not only the subject of the sentence but also a singular subject. This would mean it should read “All I have to offer is passages from a book.”
It may be hard for you to read “is” and “passages” together like this. It was for me. But something was nagging at me and I had to try to find out for sure if it was correct. I turned to The Chicago Manual of Style, which we used for this project, and then stopped. How do I search for this? Even using the online version, I had trouble forming a query to pull up the information I was looking for.
After a few frustrating minutes trying this approach, I turned to a Facebook group I belong to: Editors’ Association of Earth. I posted my question to the group and within minutes got half a dozen answers. Now, of course not everyone agrees on these matters. Some respondents simply said, “‘Are’ sounds better to me.” Or “‘Passages’ is plural, so it should be ‘are.’” Or “Recast the sentence”; it was not an option in this case. Those answers didn’t help me and didn’t seem to take into account my hesitant assertion that “All I have to offer” was the subject and a singular subject at that.
But then I started receiving what I was looking for: references from more seasoned editors than I that addressed this issue. References to Bryan Garner, Theodore Bernstein, Patricia O’Conner . . . and even Carol Saller responded herself! Saller is a former editor of The Chicago Manual of Style and the author of The Subversive Copy Editor. They all confirmed that my hunch was correct: it should be “All I have to offer is passages from a book.”
I hope this is educational for other editors and writers. And I hope you can use the Editors’ Association of Earth to help you with similar predicaments.
Anne Kelley Conklin is a freelance copy editor and proofreader in the Twin Cities. She edits a variety of material, including books, magazines, corporate newsletters, marketing collateral and websites.
This article originally appeared in Networking News, the Professional Editors Network’s members-only newsletter. Join PEN today to get the newsletter in your inbox every month—plus access to our archive of past issues.