They were mayor

From the NYT Magazine of the 18th, in a “Who’s Who” section on “Obama’s People”, a brief identification of Nancy Pelosi (p. 110):

(1) NANCY PELOSI, 68, grew up in Baltimore, where her father and brother were mayor.

This struck me as a bit off, because of the plural subject (her father and brother) and plural verb (were), but singular predicative (mayor). Normally, these three constituents agree in number (though there are constructions where non-agreement is possible, as in “The problem is rats”):

Her father and brother were politicians/*(a) politician.

Shifting the predicative to plural in (1) is possible, but (to my ear) still not entirely satisfactory:

(2) NANCY PELOSI, 68, grew up in Baltimore, where her father and brother were mayors.

What’s going on here is that mayor in (1) is a singular count noun, used (exceptionally) without a determiner, to denote a “unique role” (which is why the shift to the plural in (2) alters the sense of the example). Nevertheless, (1) takes a little work to understand, since the reader has to work it out that these two people filled this unique role at different times.

7 Responses to “They were mayor”

  1. Laura Staum Says:

    I think maybe mayor has been incorporated into the verb, making a new verb”to be mayor” – there is something that both Nancy Pelosi’s father and brother once did in Baltimore, and that is “be mayor” (the plural past tense of which is “were mayor”)…

  2. Ian Preston Says:

    To my ear (1) sounds entirely natural and (2) sounds odd because I don’t know whether or not to read it as suggesting Baltimore had some sort of dual mayoralty or some system with different types of mayor (like those British cities that have both a mayor and Lord Mayor or that have mayors for each of their constituent boroughs).

  3. The Ridger Says:

    “He was a mayor” and “he was mayor” aren’t quite the same thing, which is why for me (as for others, apparently) “they were mayor” isn’t remarkable.

  4. mollymooly Says:

    Interestingly, “…where her father and brother had been mayor” sounds less off to me. (Presumably it wasn’t an option in this instance, since her brother was not mayor till after Nancy was done growing up.)

  5. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Laura Staum, about “be mayor” as a verb: intriguing idea, but it’s hard to see what sort of evidence would argue for it. And the same analysis would then go for all the unique-role nouns: be president, be director, etc. And what about these nouns in combination with other predicative-taking verbs (become mayor, remain mayor)?

  6. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To mollymooly: I agree that the perfect sounds better than the plain past, though I can’t at the moment see why this should be so. In general, it seems to me that more material in a sentence makes it easier to process; “All of us have been president of the Linguistic Society of America” sounds just fine to me. In any case, I don’t think that this is an issue of grammaticality, but of processing difficulty.

  7. sesquiotic Says:

    Perhaps the reason “were mayor” sounds awkward while “had been mayor” doesn’t as much is that “were” tends more to point to a specific time in the past, allowing the possibility that they could have been mayor simultaneously, while “had been mayor” presents the states as completed by a certain point in time but not necessarily concurrently. “They had both been in prison” might conjure up a possible simultaneity, defeasible by adding “at different times,” but compare “They were both in prison at different times”: it seems to say that, at different (i.e., several) times, both were in prison together.

    It crosses my mind that proper nouns might be kindred to sui generis nouns such as “mayor,” “principal,” “king,” etc. “St. Petersburg has been capital of Russia; it has also been Petrograd and Leningrad.” “Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier have both been Hamlet, but quite differently.” (Note the difficulty we would cause by swapping in “was” for the pluperfect in both sentences, too.)

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