Data points: reduced coordination 10/23/10

From the editorial “Katrina, Five Years Later” in the NYT 9/2/10 (emphasis mine):

For starters, the state and federal government need to find more effective ways of working with working with community-based nonprofit programs that have a good record of helping cash-strapped property owners restore their homes.

(The highlighted wording remains in the on-line version.)

I would have written “the state and federal governments need…” And you can google up a ton of examples with “(the) state and federal governments” (a “reduced coordination”, with two coordinated modifiers for a single head noun) as subject with a clearly plural verb, as here:

Financial Management: State and Federal Governments Are Not Taking Action to Collect Unpaid Debt through Reciprocal Agreements (link)

Another possibility is to construe “state and federal” as disjunctively interpreted non-restrictive modifiers, so that “(the) state and federal government” is understood as ‘(the) government, whether state or federal’. But then “state and federal government” is semantically and syntactically singular and takes a singular verb, as here:

The State and Federal Government is sucking tax payer dollars for a bloated bureaucracy and paying high benefits,… (link)

More common than I would have thought. Entertainingly, this example occurs in a collection of comments including this one:

The State and Federal Government are Policing and Taxing Agencies.

which has the syntax in the NYT editorial. There’s a respectable number of such examples, often in “official” documents of one sort or another.

So: three types of “reduced coordination” (I keep the expression in scare quotes because I don’t think there’s good evidence for treating examples with coordinated modifiers as in any way reduced from longer coordinations):

Coordination construed as plural: head noun plural in form and meaning, taking plural verb (“state and federal governments are…”); very common, and might be thought of as the “textbook case”

Coordination construed as singular: head noun singular in form and meaning, taking singular verb (“state and federal government is…”); pretty common

Mixed coordination: head noun singular in form but plural in meaning, taking plural verb (“state and federal government are…”); least common, but attested in edited writing

(I’m merely expressing some surprise at the examples of mixed coordination, not condemning them.)

What I currently have no clue about is the extent of mixed coordination with other heads and other modifiers. When I try to construct fresh examples, the results strike me as not merely surprising but flat-out ungrammatical, and I can’t google up relevant attestations.

(Final note: “state and federal” has a modifier that’s a noun, state, conjoined with a modifier that’s an adjective, federal — but a “pseudo-adjective”, a type of non-predicating adjective; see, for example, the discussion here. The larger point is that such coordinations should not be treated as unacceptable because of their apparent failure of parallelism.)


8 Responses to “Data points: reduced coordination 10/23/10”

  1. F. Escobar C. Says:

    Here’s an example that bugged me a few months ago: “The human encounter between the peoples of the Old and New World had jarring effects on prevailing ideas about the nature of man” (Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Americas: A Hemispheric History, p. 83). I was expecting the plural Worlds, but only singular World was supplied. It’s probably the kind of example you’re looking for in this post (but it’s got no verb to agree with, so it’s only partly useful).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Right on the spot, Federico. In the “textbook” construction, the head N is plural to reflect its semantics (‘Old World and New World’, so there are two worlds). Nice example, because for me it’s slightly surprising but entirely interpretable — not what I would have said myself, but nothing I would object to.

      Things like “the French and Italian parliament” (meaning ‘the French parliament and the Italian parliament’) are just beond the pale for me, though, for reasons I don’t yet understand.

      • F. Escobar C. Says:

        I’ll barge in, tardily, with another example I heard today. It’s from a podcast, so it’s certainly a less vetted example than something drawn from a printed book. The podcast is an episode of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time (this one, on Calvinism, around 05:25 in). One of the guests, a British professor, says this: “returning to explore what both the Old and the New Testament says about God is absolutely fundamental.” The singular agreement seemed noteworthy.

  2. Ben Zimmer Says:

    I’m reminded of a puzzling case of mixed coordination I wrestled with on Language Log a few years ago: the New York Times headline, In the U.S. and Europe, Tensions Between a National and Minority Languages.”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Part of the issue here is the constraints (and conventions) of headline writing (a favorite topic for both of us). But I have examples where brevity isn’t a major factor in choosing number for the head N in construction with modifiers. Will try to put together a posting on today’s finds (from the NYT editorial page).

  3. Rick S Says:

    For what it’s worth, on first reading I took “the state” to be a reference to the state government (as in “the interstate highways are maintained by the state”–is that a metanym?), making this a coordination of noun phrases rather than modifiers.

  4. Bill Findlay Says:

    In “state and federal government is…” can “government” be construed as an abstraction, rather than specific administration(s)?

  5. Greg Morrow Says:

    Hmm. I am pretty thoroughly on board with the mixed coordination, to the point that the construed-singular construction is a clear grammatical error to me.

    As to why “state and federal government are” is acceptable but “French and Italian Parliament are” is not, I think that’s pretty clear. State government and federal government are related to each other; they are different parts of our federal system. But the French and Italian parliaments are independent; they represent different countries and do not in any way belong to the same system. So they can’t be conflated the way the state and federal government can.

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