I have looked at this so long that I have no idea what is right. The story appeared in my morning print edition with the headline "How many drugs were he on?" It now appears in the online edition with the headline "What drugs were he on?" Perhaps they think they fixed it. The subject is "he," right? And verbs must agree with their subjects, right? Did I miss something in my English grammar days?Gentle Reader:Tom in Texas
You of all people should know that Mr. Rewrite hates grammar questions. Remember those squid-like machines -- Sentinels -- that threatened to tear Neo & Co. to pieces in "The Matrix?" That's what happens when Mr. Rewrite blogs on a point of grammar. The post sits out there until a busybody grammarian happens by, Sentinel-like, and picks a nit. Then another happens by. And another. Soon Mr. Rewrite can't burp without three busybodies in England pointing out the inadequacy and ambiguity of the smallest points and citing Middle English.
Anyway, you have it right. The newspaper has fallen for what Mr. Rewrite has heard called "the mirage of the nearest noun." When that happens, a writer bases verb tense on a noun next to the verb rather than the noun with which the verb is supposed to agree. The subject of the headline you forwarded is "he," not "drugs." It's easy to debug if you reorganize it into a declarative sentence: He was on drugs. Or you can reorganize it into a question that reads more like a declarative sentence, which allows for easier diagramming: He was on how many drugs?/He was on what drugs?
It's also easy to solve the problem by changing "he" to a plural subject and going with the singular drug: Tom and Mr. Rewrite were on what type of drug?
Here's the article that has Tom riled up.
Thanks for your faith in Mr. Rewrite, Tom. Now Mr. Rewrite will sit here dreading that first snippy comment from across the pond.
Here's this week's list of the Most Misspelled Names in the News. Barack (not Barak) Obama remains in command. If the Most Misspelled list is a barometer of media buzz, Hillary (not Hilary) Clinton has some work to do.
Warren Buffett (not Buffet) and Condoleezza (not Condoleeza) Rice make jumps this week. Rice is traveling abroad, which leads to more misspellings. Buffett got some buzz out of investing in Kraft.