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Can You Find My Error?

Today I sent out my free monthly newsletter, Better Writing at Workto more than 19,000 subscribers. As always, I included an Error Quest. That’s the monthly puzzler paragraph that includes one error for readers to find. Unfortunately, this month’s had two. 

I have removed the error I intended from the paragraph below. Can you find the one error I missed? 

What I like about the paint department in our hardware store is the swatches of paints that go well together. I am never certain which colors complement others, but the color strips guide me in the right direction. 

Did you find my unintended error? If not, keep trying. Subscribe to Better Writing at Work, and you can try to find one error (I hope just one!) each month. 

Thanks to Nancy Wagner and Russell Clarke for alerting me to the error. They both communicated about it quite tactfully too!

Syntax Training


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

16 comments on “Can You Find My Error?”

  • THAT is in the wrong spot…Should read as What I like about the paint department in our hardware store is that the swatches of paints go well together.

  • I agree with Jeanette and with Diane’s first post: the subject and verb don’t agree in the first sentence. The subject of the sentence is the word “swatches.” If you put the sentence into a more conventional subject-first arrangement and remove some modifying phrases, the error is easy to see/hear:

    The swatches of paints is what I like about the hardware store.

    Clearly, “is” should be changed to “are.” (In Kevin’s post, he says “What I like…is” sounds correct, but that’s only true if the subject following is singular. “What I like is the sound of the ocean” would be correct. “What I like is cookies” would not be correct.)

    When I read the newsletter earlier I missed the compliment/complement error initially and chose this as the obvious error. I knew that you would address it here when you noticed it, Lynne, and you didn’t disappoint! I love your blog and the way you turn your own occasional mistakes into examples for readers to learn from. You have the heart of a teacher!

  • For the record, I would have simply said “paint swatches” but I don’t think “swatches of paints” is incorrect, just a little clunkier.

  • Thanks, everyone, for your excellent answers.

    Diane, you win the prize for accuracy and speed. Thanks for weighing in so fast.

    Kevin, Diane is correct. “Swatches of paints” is acceptable.

    Barbie, that’s an interesting revision.

    Jeannette, you and Diane are correct.

    Stephanie, thank you for your thoughtful feedback! I am glad my occasional errors are helpful.

    Bob, “swatches of paints” is acceptable. Thanks for commenting.

    I’d like to write more, but my plane is boarding.


  • I enjoy these types of “teachable moment” posts where the answer isn’t given right away. They never fail to teach me something new.

    Replacing “store is” with “store are” sounded correct to my ear. However, since my ear sometimes plays tricks on me, I researched the use cases for “like … is” and “like … are” and what I found surprised me.

    According to one person who qualified his statement with “Fowler, admittedly in an edition eighty years old, but still an accepted authority, says …” wrote:

    “What, as subject, takes the singular verb whether the complementary noun be single or plural: thus, ‘What I like is sprouts’; not ‘What I like are sprouts’.”

    So our example would be: What I like is swatches.

    Another person replied:

    “What is different, I think, is that most Americans use the word “what” very similarly to “who” in that they derive their number from their antecedents dynamically.

    I don’t say this to question Fowler’s authority, I just observe that American colloquial usage doesn’t follow it, for what that’s worth.”

    When faced a complex construction like our example, another site recommended adding a verb to clarify what is liked:

    “What I like about the paint department in our hardware store is viewing the swatches of paints that go well together.”

    Given these bits of info, I’m not sure if there was an error or not.

    Here’s the link to the forum thread from which the quotes were pulled:—what-.aspx

  • I mostly agree with Matt but would add this thought: The subject is the whole phrase, “What I like . . . hardware store,” which as an entity takes a singular verb. Stephanie’s example actually makes this case: “What I like is cookies” is correct. “What I like are cookies” just sounds too strange. So, in the case of conflicting subject vs. complement, match the verb to the subject. And if the subject is a phrase or clause, treat it as singular.

    And I’d keep “paints” in the plural because it is the paints — phrasing that nicely emphasizes the different colors — that go well together, not the swatches. The phrase “that go well together” modifies “paints,” not “swatches.”

    So I think your paragraph was correct as you wrote it!

  • Thanks for your detailed comments, Matt and Olivia. I am traveling and away from my “Fowler.” But when I am back in my office, I will comment further.

    My mistake–or possible mistake–has made for some interesting discussion!


  • Matt, I have reviewed “Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” which was reissued in 2004. In the thread you provided, I believe the people commenting were citing “Fowler’s” incorrectly. That is, I think the editor of “Fowler’s” was saying something different from what people inferred.

    The editor says this is correct: “What is required are houses at rents that the people can pay.” Notice the “what is” and “are houses.” “What” gets a singular verb, but the plural word, “houses,” gets a plural.

    The editor, R.W. Burchfield, points out that all Mr. Fowler’s examples follow the “What is said are words” pattern–not the “What is said is words” pattern.

    “Fowler’s” is challenging to wade through, and my wading may have led me in the wrong direction. However, my understanding is that Fowler would have said “What I like are paint swatches.”

    From now on, I’m going to stay away from that “what” construction. As people commented above, it’s wordy and cumbersome. And it got me into trouble!


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