Archive for the ‘Agreement’ Category

sg or sg = pl

October 24, 2011

From “Beating a retreat” in The Economist, 9/24/11, p. 99 (on-line here):

… soot particles absorb sunlight, and so warm up the atmosphere. Then, when snow or rain wash them onto an ice floe, they darken its surface and thus cause it to melt faster.

This is 3sg or 3sg (snow or rain) functioning as 3pl for the purposes of subject-verb agreement (wash rather than washes), though a general principle —

(1) When all parts of a subject joined by or or nor are singular, the verb is singular; when all parts are plural, the verb is plural (Little, Brown Handbook, quoted in “Agreement with disjunctive subjects”, here)

would predict 3sg agreement (and I would have used 3sg in this case).

Intuitively, this is a kind of “notional agreement”, snow or rain being understood as ‘snow and rain, whichever happen(s) to occur’. This is an unusually simple example; in the other sg or sg = pl cases I’ve collected, other things are going on.


More on Google+

July 17, 2011

This time (earlier, here and here) in the webcomic Cyanide and Happiness (hat tip to Jeff Shaumeyer in Facebook):

A note about the webcomic, and then some notes about the idiom everybody and his brother.


Determiner-head selection

October 24, 2010

In a single short editorial (“End of One Scourge”, about the elimination of the cattle disease rinderpest) in the NYT yesterday, two anomalous plurals (boldfaced below):

(1) Rinderpest spreads rapidly and kills nearly every animals it infects.

(2) [Rinderpest and smallpox] share a similar history, since both diseases were among the first to be treated by inoculation in the 18th century. Eradication was also made possible by the fact that neither diseases mutated rapidly…

(Both plurals remain in the on-line version.)


Data points: reduced coordination 10/23/10

October 23, 2010

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)


Data points: subj-verb agreement 8/17/10

August 17, 2010

Headline on the front page of the New York Times today:

Exclusive Golf Course Is Also Organic, So a Weed or Two Get In

My first reaction — really, why I noticed the head in the first place — was that I would have written gets (sg.) rather than get (pl.), and I’m still inclined that way, though I’m not willing to say that get is unacceptable or non-standard. I do have a hypothesis about where the plural might have come from.


Singular, plural, collective

December 10, 2009

A follow-up to my posting on Ned Halley’s Dictionary of Modern English Grammar, about plurals and collectives.

The issue comes up in Halley’s entry on apostrophe (the mark of punctuation), where he writes (punctuation as in the original):

There remains the little problem of where the apostrophe goes according to single [I assume he’s (incorrectly) treating single and singular as interchangeable technical terms] and plural possessive use. But again, it’s simple. If the possessor is single, as in “the girl’s hat” the apostrophe is placed before the ‘s.’ If the possessor is plural, as in “the girls’ school” the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’ because it is, in effect, abbreviating what would otherwise be “the girls’s school.” Remember that collective words, such as children, crowd, and people, are singular, so in the possessive are written as “the children’s party”, “the crowd’s favourite”, “the people’s friend” and so on. [The emphasis is mine.]

This is seriously confused. I’m guessing that, as with single and singular, Halley is confusing characterizations of meaning (reference to an individual, as with single) and characterizations of grammatical properties (allowing an expression to take part in various syntactic constructions, for example subject-verb agreement, as with singular). There are excellent reasons why individuated reference and singular grammatical number should be distinguished — though they are obviously related — and I suppose it’s too much to expect that your typical person on the street would appreciate this point, but it’s utterly crucial for someone who hangs out a shingle saying they’re offering advice on grammar, syntax, and usage (as Halley does).

Here are the facts: the English nouns children and people are grammatically plural —

these/*this children/people [determiner agreement]

The children/people were/*was shouting. [subject-verb agreement]

(and refer to collectivities), but the noun crowd (which also refers to a collectivity) is grammatically singular, as can be seen from determiner agreement:

this/*these crowd of well-wishers

A complication: collective nouns like crowd sometimes show mixed behavior with respect to other sorts of agreement, allowing “notional” plural agreement in certain circumstances. But the facts about determiner agreement are clear, and indeed collective nouns are count nouns and have ordinary plural forms (crowds, for instance).

What sets children and people apart from most plural nouns is that they don’t have the -s suffix of regular plurals. Children is one of a number of irregular plurals, of several types (women, teeth, alumni, and more). People is one of a number of plural-only nouns with no suffix -s (cattle and police are two others). And there are zero-plural (or “base-plural”) nouns as well (like sheep), with the plural form identical to the singular. These are well-known phenomena, described (along with some other anomalies in the English system of number in nouns) in every reasonably extensive reference work on the structure of English. It’s inexcusable that Halley should not know about them.


September 29, 2009

Ned Deily reports coming across this sign in a San Francisco store window:


Yes, this premise is, rather than these premises are. The result is something that looks like an instance of the logical term premise (so that Deily posted a photo of the sign on Facebook under the heading “department of rhetorical security”), rather than the ‘house or building’ word.

The ways of plurals in English are intricate indeed, and premise(s) exhibits several of these intricacies.


All our fish is farmed sustainably

April 22, 2009

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.


he or she are

April 6, 2009

In my note on verb agreement with disjunctive subjects, I googled up some examples with “either he or she are” (and some with “either of them are”; and you can also find some examples with “neither he nor she are”). It occurred to me that either might be a crucial ingredient in these examples, so I tried searching on {“he or she are” -either}, expecting to find fewer examples. Instead, I found more, but mostly of one type — with he or she used for generic reference. (more…)