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December 31st, 2008

Will be no or will not be any? / plural adjectives, plural verbs

by Barbara Wallraff

Susan Owens, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “I am a personal injury attorney. I frequently inform insurance adjusters via written correspondence whether my client plans to make a claim for lost wages in relation to his injuries. When my client does not plan to make a lost wage claim, I never know the correct way to inform the adjuster. I fluctuate between ‘There will be no lost wage claim in relation to this incident’ and ‘There will not be any lost wage claim in relation to this incident.’ Both sentences sound awkward to me. Are these sentences grammatically correct? Is there an alternative?”

Dear Susan: One of the great things about English is that there’s always an alternative. Both of those sentences are grammatically correct. Still, you’re right to be suspicious. Experts on writing style often advise against starting sentences with “There is,” “There will be” and so forth. “There” is a placeholder subject, containing very little information. It doesn’t necessarily do as much work as the subject of a sentence should.
For instance, consider “There’s a Kind of Hush,” as sung by -- well, everyone, including Herman’s Hermits, The Carpenters and Barry Manilow. Wouldn’t the lyrics be more graceful if they began, “A kind of hush lies over the world tonight”? At least, they would be if we ignore how the words fit the tune.

The placeholder “There” does have its uses. For instance, consider the Rodgers and Hart song “There’s a Small Hotel.” Would we prefer the lyrics “A small hotel with a wishing well exists”? “A small hotel has a wishing well”? No, and no. I doubt that the original can be improved on.

As for your sentence and your options, what about “My client will not be making a lost wage claim”? Writing experts would approve of this version, because it spells out who is taking the action (or in this case, not taking it). But, Susan, no doubt what the insurance adjusters care about is that there won’t be a claim for lost wages. You and I are worrying about how to say that gracefully for the sake of taking pride in our work.

Dyanne Willems, of Fraser, Mich., writes: “Please help! Which sentence is correct: ‘Medical, surgical and social histories were reviewed’ or ‘Medical, surgical and social history were reviewed’? I think the first one is right, but I am forced to type the second. I would feel better if I knew for sure which was right.”

Dear Dyanne: As you suspect, the first version is the better one. The way I learned the rule is this: “The French and American flags” but “The French and the American flag.” That is, you can use a singular noun, like “flag” or “history,” to refer to multiples, but if you do so, you need to put “the” in front of each adjective. This implies the noun (“flag,” “history”) after each of the earlier adjectives. So “The medical, the surgical and the social history were reviewed” would be fine. But without the repeated “the,” “histories” is correct.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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