Serial disagreements

There’s a particular error that crops up everywhere, from corporate documents to national newspaper articles and weighty books. It’s commonplace, subtle, and easy to overlook. There’s probably a fancy name for it, but I’m going to call it a serial disagreement.

A serial disagreement is what happens when you try in vain to make one word (such as a preposition or verb) govern a series of three or more terms. If that sounds confusing, here are two examples:

My magazine is on sale in bookstores, cinemas and at newsstands.

This lizard can be found among plants, rocks and in tree hollows.

In the first example, the preposition ‘in’ applies to ‘bookstores’ and also, by virtue of that comma, to ‘cinemas’. So far, so good.

Now, in these circumstances we expect a preposition to apply also to the third term in such a list. (For example: ‘I am partial to apples, bananas and oranges.’) But wait! The writer has inserted a second preposition — ‘at’ — before ‘newsstands’, and now the syntax falls apart at the seams. Confused, we look back at the start of the sentence, with its orderly promise of three terms governed by the ‘in’, but it’s been sabotaged by that pesky ‘at’.

A corrected version would read:

‘My magazine is on sale in bookstores and cinemas and at newsstands.’

. . . or, a bit less clunkily,

‘My magazine is on sale in bookstores and cinemas, and also at newsstands.’

As for the other example:

This lizard can be found among plants and rocks and in tree hollows.

The simple addition of ‘and’ has broken the list of three into two separate parts, each governed by its own preposition.

Here’s another example, uttered by US politician Nancy Pelosi:

‘This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged.’

This time, it’s the use of two verbs — ‘is’, and then ‘will be’ — within a single list that offends the syntax. It would have been neater to stick with three adjectives, such as ‘… is dangerous, illegal and open to challenge’, but Pelosi was probably too angry at the time to think about syntax. (Go fight the big battles, Nancy; the grammar can wait.)

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