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Revolutions can, and often have, begun with reading.

I am curious to know about the use of the verb "begun" here. Though I am not saying it's wrong, but it can also be "begin". I see it this way. When deciding the form of verb in these kind of construction, I break the sentences and the choose the form of the verb.

For example -

I can, and definitely will, do it.

Consider the sentence. When I write the verb "do", I think of which form of "do" will be proper here. So I break the sentence - "I can do it" and "I will definitely do it". And in both the sentences the verb "do" is common. So I take the verb form "do" in "I can, and definitely will, do it".

But when it came to this sentence I can't use the above mentioned method to decide the verb.

Revolutions can, and often have, begun with reading. (This is quoted from an article)

Now if I try to break the sentence into two it comes down to - "Revolution can begin with reading" and "Revolution often have begun with reading". In both sentences two form is used - "begin" and "begun", so it gives the confusion which form of the verb we should use in the final sentence.

Please help.

  • 1
    It seems like proximity agreement is at work here, though I'm more used to its application in the case of singular-plural conflict. – Damkerng T. Apr 9 '14 at 5:25
  • @DamkerngT. I read that article and at the end it says it might be correct in speech but should be considered as incorrect in writing. – Man_From_India Apr 9 '14 at 7:34
  • Yes, I've read that too. So I'm not sure if it's the case, but I speculate that it's related. (Me still waiting for answers quietly.) – Damkerng T. Apr 9 '14 at 7:47
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    You might consider it incorrect, but in this case I personally think it's fine. Sometimes apparent conflicts can be resolved in a way that pleases the ear. (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that other speakers disagree with my judgment, though.) – snailboat Apr 9 '14 at 10:49
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It's a trade-off. You can make a longer, less-pithy sentence to get begin/begun to agree with both modal verbs, or you can get a terser, more-pithy sentence if you're willing to live with one violation.

The short version:

Revolutions can, and often have, begun with reading.

puts a lot of stress on the word have. Reading it aloud, the word gets the highest intonation of any word in the sentence, and it gets drawn out and followed by a pause. The present perfect tense says that the deed is done and is still relevant. But we still haven't gotten to the deed! Finally, "begun with reading" says what what this big deed is, now that you're expecting something important.

This puts huge emphasis on the fact that revolutions beginning with reading aren't just a speculation, they have actually happened. Of course, this sentence needs to follow or be followed by facts about some actual revolutions that began with reading, or the reader will feel gypped.

The long version:

Revolutions can begin, and often have begun, with reading.

seems less emphatic to me. Repeating a word sometimes gives it more emphasis, but here it just seems to blur the point. A pause now separates "begun" from "with reading". The main point of both sentences is about reading, but this version distracts from reading with two forms of the word begin. The short version is simpler and stronger.

It often happens that a word later in a sentence needs to be in two different forms to agree with two words that came earlier in the sentence. And it often happens that making the sentence longer to do that makes it clumsier and less memorable. In this battle between perfect grammar and rhetorical force, proximity agreement awards the victory to rhetorical force. Just make the later word agree with the more recent of the earlier words—especially if the earlier word comes immediately before.

Native speakers don't even notice that this is happening. One tends to notice it only while writing, when one is examining every word and nuance carefully. It's like the way a stage magician can hide a card or coin right in front of your eyes, but you don't notice that anything is amiss because the magician has distracted you with something else. In this case, the agreement between have and begun sufficiently distracts the reader from the disagreement between can and begun that the reader doesn't notice.

And yes, it's perfectly fine in writing, no matter what that article says. Good writers do this all the time, because good writers don't sacrifice rhetorical force to grammatical nitpickery.

  • Some native speakers will notice this happening, and noticing the error will reduce the rhetorical force. I'm more impressed by the long version than the original, and would choose this every time in writing, and most of the time in speaking. If I said the first one, I would probably back up and correct it once it came out of my mouth. – DCShannon Mar 24 '15 at 0:19
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Revolutions can begin with reading.
Revolutions often have begun with reading.

If you want to merge these two into a single sentence then the two tenses need to be maintained, otherwise it's jarring/confusing, as you have rightly identified.

Revolutions can begin, and often have begun, with reading.

  • Thanks toandfro. But the author wrote it this way - Revolutions can, and often have, begun with reading. – Man_From_India Apr 9 '14 at 4:12
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    @Man_From_India, either way it would have disagreed with part of what preceded it; it would be ungrammatical either way. For most English speakers, it sounds better if it agrees with the nearer part of the sentence ("often have begun") rather than the farther part ("revolutions can begin"). Toandfro's answer shows how you could resolve the problem grammatically. – The Photon Apr 9 '14 at 5:06
  • So I guess the sentence in question is a typo or bad editing. – Man_From_India Apr 9 '14 at 5:11
  • Or it is simply "poetic license". The sentence as it stands is nice and concise and readily understood by native readers :) English "allows" for breaking rules provided you get the right meaning across :) – oerkelens Apr 9 '14 at 6:07
  • @Man_From_India The author may have written it so, but that doesn't mean it's right. I don't think it's a typo or bad editing, it's simply wrong. I don't accept the idea of poetic license here. Poetic licence can be just a 'cop out' to excuse anything. It may or may not be 'true', but it certainly isn't helpful. – toandfro Apr 10 '14 at 9:32

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