All our fish is farmed sustainably

A little while ago, some friends visiting from Boston (well, Cambridge) had lunch with me in Palo Alto and reported that they were scheduled for a dinner at Weird Fish in San Francisco, which advertised on its website that

All our fish is farmed sustainably.

I had a small grammatical twinge at this — not a judgment of unacceptability for me, much less a judgment that the sentence was non-standard English. But I would have preferred

All our fish are farmed sustainably.

To see what’s going on here, you have to recognize that there are (at least) three different word-forms fish in English.

To start with, there are (at least) two lexical items FISH in English:

FISH-1: a C (count) noun, referring to a type of sea creature;
FISH-2: an M (mass) noun, referring to the edible flesh of such creatures.

This is on piece of a pervasive C/M relationship in English, in which nouns referring to creatures have corresponding nouns referring to the edible flesh of these creatures. There are a few suppletive pairs (pig the animal, pork the edible flesh; sheep the animal, mutton the edible flesh; etc.), but mostly the pairs are homophonous (chicken, duck, lamb, goat, ostrich, crab, antelope, etc.), and though dictionaries note the ambiguity for the more common creatures, so far as I know, no dictionary lists both meanings for every noun referring to a creature with edible flesh.

FISH-2, as an M noun, has only a SG (singular) form, fish, though of course there are ways to create C versions in special senses (see the discussion of “countification” here and the more general discussion of zero relationships here).

Back to FISH-1. In its ordinary uses, it’s a C noun with a zero plural. That is, it can refer to one or more than one:

The fish was swimming along the shore. (SG)
The fish were swimming along the shore. (PL)

(Again, there are conversions, in this case C>M, but these are side matters in the larger pattern.)

[Please don’t write about the factual details of these things. This is one of the most researched topic areas in English structure; dictionaries, reference grammars, and scholarly articles have been treating these matters for well over a century. Yes, there is variation, of several different sorts, but even that has been pretty well studied. Here I’m trying not to obscure the larger points.]

So the question is: how to interpret all our fish in the original Weird Fish example. The verb agreement is clearly SG, so fish in it could be an instance of FISH-1 (SG) or an instance of FISH-2 (necessarily SG). But if the reference is to FISH-2, then it’s about fish flesh, but if the reference is to FISH-1, then it’s about a single fish belonging to us, and all is an extent determiner conveying something like ‘the whole of’ (as in “All our fish, Sammy, is covered with ominous spots”). The first interpretation is odd: people don’t actually farm flesh, they farm creatures (cf. “All our pork/mutton is farmed sustainably”, with nouns that are clearly flesh-referring). The second interpretation is flat-out bizarre (cf. “The whole of our fish, Sammy, is farmed sustainably”).

The intention of the original Weird Fish example is clearly to refer to specific instances of fish (FISH-1, PL) that the restaurant has had supplied to it. And that would call for a PL verb (are farmed).

It’s a subtle point. Note that I’m not saying that the SG is incorrect — you can certainly get away with it, and many people have no trouble with it  — only that I’d prefer the PL here. I’m expressing a bit of personal taste, and backing my taste up with a bit of grammatical reasoning — which, of course, you’re free to reject.

16 Responses to “All our fish is farmed sustainably”

  1. Ian Preston Says:

    On the website they say that they “prepare fish that is primarily farmed and sustainable”, again with singular agreement, suggesting to me that they have FISH-2 in mind. That seems natural to me; the fish that they serve isn’t always in the form of whole creatures and some may not be even be supplied to them in that form.

  2. Jens Fiederer Says:

    “All our beef is farmed sustainably” sounds quite natural to me, a complete parallel to your twinge-maker. Nevertheless, I felt what was probably the same twinge.

  3. mollymooly Says:

    Totally raw Google counts:
    “all our pork is” 97
    “all our bacon is” 33
    “all our pigs are” 1390

    “all our chicken is” 99
    “all our chickens are” 96

    “all our beef is” 2490
    “all our cows are” 71
    “all our cattle are” 3340

    “all our mutton is” 2
    “all our sheep are” 69
    “all our lamb is” 54
    “all our lambs are” 59

    One factor is marketing a product to people who don’t like to think of meat as involving the slaughter of animals; the mass-singular acts as a kind of euphemism for the count-plural. The Google stats offer some evidence that people are more prepared to countenance killing pigs than killing chickens.

  4. The Ridger Says:

    Yes, when the name of the animal and the name of the food is the same, you can go plural. But I think “all our fish is” is equivalent not to “All our cows are” but “all our beef is”.

  5. Chris Waigl Says:

    The grammatical reasoning is crystal-clear as always. However, the beef, so to say, is with “The first interpretation is odd: people don’t actually farm flesh, they farm creatures”: Just as Jens Fiederer said above, there are many instances where the X in “X is farmed sustainably” is in fact not the crop but the partially transformed product.

    There’s a lot of similar telescoping in the food and farming sector. The same process leads us from free-range hens to free-range eggs (unremarkable, by now) and on to free-range omelets, shepherd’s pie and even yoghurt (all of which evoke mental images that still make me giggle). Similarly, as the subject of “is/are farmed sustainably” a few Google searches dig up:

    seafood that is farmed sustainably
    the fruit is farmed sustainably [analogous to your fish example?]
    sustainably-farmed organic food
    Sustainably Farmed, Flushable gDiapers [maybe a tiny bit of a stretch]
    Sustainably Farmed Wines
    Meat can be farmed sustainably.

    (In addition, it can be the land [island, vineyard, plot] that is farmed sustainably.)

  6. David W. Fenton Says:

    I don’t begin to propose that I understand this, but for some reason “All of our fish is farmed sustainably” is OK, while “All our fish is farmed sustainably” is not.

    What does the “of” contribute there? It makes “our fish” a direct object, and “all” the subject.

    More than that, I’m ill-equipped to say!

    David W. Fenton

  7. Jens Fiederer Says:

    Far should be it from a layman like me to try to analyze grammar in THIS environment (slap me down at will, gracious host!) but I think “fish” is the direct object ALREADY (I don’t know if the rules are the same for one of those “evil” passive constructions, but in “We farm (all) our fish sustainably” there isn’t much doubt), and adding an “of” makes it the object of that preposition.

  8. Rick S Says:

    Susan Harvey over at The virtual linguist touched on this subject just a few days ago with respect to using “grapefruit” as a plural. Though I didn’t comment, it made me think about the fact that “a truckload of grapefruit” seems unremarkable to me. Apparently, at least some fruits and vegetables have the extended C/M characteristics, too, so that the M version refers to the prepared food ready for consumption most of the time, but can substitute for the C plural sometimes. Yet this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be universal among fruits and vegetables: Although they could be figured out, the phrases “a heap of apple” and “a bowl of mashed potato” generate a twinge for me.

    Professor Harvey’s blog post left me with an unanswered question. My impression is that, in general, the M variant isn’t compatible with quantitative determiners such as *twelve tomato, but four grapefruit sounds just fine to me, and I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s confusion with “fruit” as an M-for-C-plural, whereas “fruits” seems to refer to multiple species?

  9. jlundell Says:

    It seems to me that the restaurant context drives a FISH-2 interpretation. We have fish on the menu (not fishes). It’s farmed sustainably.

  10. Kathryn Burlingham Says:

    but who do all your fish belong to?

  11. The Ridger Says:

    Grapefruit is the plural, isn’t it? Like breadfruit. You’d only say “grapefruits” when talking about different varieties of them. At least, that’s the way I do it.

  12. The Ridger Says:

    Also “all of our fish” is a partitive construction; the ‘of’ is a marker showing that “our fish” is being quantified by “all”. (Some of, half of, most of, a barrel of, a truckload of…)

  13. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Jens Fiederer: “I think “fish” is the direct object ALREADY (I don’t know if the rules are the same for one of those “evil” passive constructions, but in “We farm (all) our fish sustainably” there isn’t much doubt)”

    Some confusion here. In “All our fish is farmed sustainably”, “all our fish” is unquestionably the subject (the grammatical subject), by all the tests there are for subjects in English. But it’s also what’s sometimes called the “notional

    The verb FARM (in the sense at hand) takes two syntactic arguments, X (denoting someone who does the farming; X is the notional subject) and Y (denoting the stuff that’s farmed; Y is the notional object). The default association of syntactic arguments to syntactic functions is for the notional subject to serve as the grammatical subject and the notional object to serve as the grammatical (direct) object; this gives an active clause. But other associations are possible. In particular, in a passive clause, the notional object serves as the grammatical subject, and the notional subject is either unexpressed or serves as a grammatical oblique object (with the preposition by).

    I know this seems awfully complicated, but this amount of conceptual apparatus (and accompanying terminology) is necessary if we are to talk about the phenomena accurately.

  14. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To The Ridger on the plural of grapefruit: there are a number of nouns with variable usage; some people have alternative plurals (often differentiated by context), some have only one of the plurals, some have only the other. The facts differ from noun to noun.

    I am someone with both a zero-plural grapefruit and an -s-plural grapefruits (for reference to more than one of the things, in both cases). The first two dictionaries I looked at diverge: NOAD2 gives only the zero plural, AHD4 specifies no plural, which is what it does for nouns with -s plurals.

  15. The Ridger Says:

    Just ate at a place in Whitby, North Yorkshire, which had on its menu board:

    All our fish is sourced from well managed fishing grounds…

  16. Jens Fiederer Says:

    Thank you, I learned something. Not rare, of course.

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