Grammatical disagreement through false attraction

As children we learn (and may also be taught) that singular nouns take singular verbs and plural nouns take plural verbs. This subject–verb agreement is also called concord; it sounds perfectly straightforward, but it often isn’t. Complications arise and mistakes slip in even when the numbers involved seem obvious.

In unedited writing it’s common to find nouns or noun phrases disagreeing with the verb, especially when a string of text comes between them and ends in an element with a different number. Though less common in edited prose, because it’s something editors look out for, examples do occur. Here’s one I read in Chase Novak’s horror novel Breed:

The thick gloomy shadows of the apartment itself, depressing on the face of it, is actually a kind of blessing to Amelie and Bernard, muting the visual impact of Bernard’s countless deformities and hiding, as well, the chaos of their quarters.

You can see how the conflict might have arisen: the apartment, itself, face and it are all singular and come between the actual grammatical subject shadows – which is plural – and its verb. So one or more of these intervening elements interfere(s) with the necessary agreement: The thick gloomy shadows… are a kind of blessing.

I saw another example recently in BuzzFeed’s ‘53 Signs Your Boyfriend Is Really Three Children In A Trenchcoat’:

The only time he ever posts selfies are when he’s with you.

Here we see the reverse kind of disagreement: a singular noun (time) is mismatched with a plural verb (are), probably because of the proximity of plural selfies. It should be: The only time… is when he’s with you. Some grammarians refer to this interference-by-proximity as attraction, false attraction, blind agreement, or the principle of proximity.

Similar mistakes crop up often in texts I proofread or edit. I suspect in most cases it arises through inattention, but there may sometimes be genuine uncertainty behind the phenomenon. If it’s any consolation to the writers, in Julius Caesar Shakespeare wrote: ‘The posture of your blows are yet unknown’, and many other skilled authors have fallen foul too.

450px-GnomentreppeSW

Thick, gloomy, plural shadows. Photo by R. Brunsch

Some constructions have a foot in both singular and plural camps. Nouns of multitude like team, jury and committee can be either, so long as the grammar is internally consistent – this is a form of notional agreement. Singular they and nouns like politics come under notional agreement too, as do compound subjects that may be considered as a single concept: Jelly and ice-cream is my favourite.

Grammatical agreement has no shortage of anomalies. To give you an idea of the complexity involved, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage devotes 15 tall columns to agreement, while Garner’s Modern American Usage has 18 subsections in its entry on subject–verb agreement.

Returning to the principle of proximity or attraction, MWDEU quotes from (and concurs with) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985) by Quirk et al.:

Conflict between grammatical concord and attraction through proximity tends to increase with the distance between the noun phrase head of the subject and the verb, for example when the postmodifier is lengthy or when an adverbial or a parenthesis intervenes between the subject and the verb. Proximity concord occurs mainly in unplanned discourse. In writing it will be corrected to grammatical concord if it is noticed.

The concluding phrase if it is noticed is worth emphasising. MWDEU’s examples, along with the ones I quote above and those I see every week in documents I’m editing, all testify to the frequency of such errors and to the need for editorial vigilance.

Updates:

Moti Lieberman at The Ling Space says there is ‘a lot of discussion about what underlies this effect’.

I just came across an example in Myles na Gopaleen’s account of the first Bloomsday (or ‘J-Day’) in his Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times: ‘Every foreign-language quotation in any of his works known to me are wrong.’

There’s a conspicuous example in this Irish Examiner headline:

irish examiner headline proximity effect grammatical agreement

And an easily-missed one in the first line of this passage of a leading story in the Guardian:

guardian nauru grammatical disagreement false attraction

14 Responses to Grammatical disagreement through false attraction

  1. I agree that learning a “rule of thumb” and then realizing there are exceptions are frustrating.

  2. Mise says:

    It reminds me of a Prohibition-era short story I read (Damon Runyon or John O’Hara, perhaps, or their wonderful ilk) in which reference was made to ‘the chickens’ along the lines of ‘the chickens is geared up to break out tonight,’ and that simple mismatch conjures up such a wonderful, effective image of the chickens as one, one unbeatable, determined whole, that it carries the story along with the sense of inexorable revolution.

  3. oudeis2005 says:

    It doesn’t help writers that grammar checkers tend to go with proximity rather than concord.

  4. Stan Carey says:

    pbandj: In natural languages there’s no avoiding it. I wonder if your use of ‘are frustrating’ was deliberately humorous…

    Mise: That’s a wonderful phrase, and I see just what you mean. Those chickens might as well be Aardman’s version of the Borg, so tight is their union. A similar mismatch often accompanies ‘there is/was’ and related constructions, but to milder effect; I’ve noted a few from books for possible future examination, e.g. ‘there was no ants left’ (Raymond Carver), ‘that’s the colours I want to use’ (Angela Bourke).

    oudeis: Very true. Sometimes I think automated grammar checkers are responsible for bad writing more than good.

  5. astraya says:

    I have found that ESL learners are also flummoxed by conjoined subjects including pronouns. A few days ago, one student asked about a sentence like “My brother and I are going to start a business together”. He was very worried about the “I are” in there. The difference is that no native speaker is ever tempted to say “My brother and (I am) going …”.
    Possibly related, I had a student last year who said “You was” a few times. When I corrected him, he said “Isn’t ‘you’ singular? – ‘You was’ is talking to one person; ‘you were’ is talking to more than one person?” I said “No”.

  6. bevrowe says:

    Also, “shadows” itself almost feels singular; it is almost a mass word in this context.

  7. Stan Carey says:

    David: That’s a good example of a form of the problem I hadn’t considered. Again, syntactic proximity is key to the difficulty. You was is a fairly common dialectal construction, but in some contexts (such as ESL) it could just complicate things unnecessarily.

    Bev: This is true too. The writer might have been imagining the shadows as a whole rather than as distinct elements for each object.

  8. Do you normally go for “none of them is…” or “none of them are…”? Last night, I was explaining to my children, who speak better Spanish than English, that we say “one man, two men” and my older son asked why we say “zero men” rather than “zero man”. Leaving the use of “zero” rather than “no” aside, I couldn’t really come up with a good answer other than “that’s the way it is”. You do see “no man” in old formulaic phrases (“let no man put asunder…”) and then of course we have the fossilized no-one & nobody, but you certainly wouldn’t say “there was no man in the square”. A phrase like that seems to suggest the noun is is a mass noun (“there was no milk in the fridge”), so I suppose the problem must be related to the countable/uncountable issue. I would always say “none of them are”, but it does seem strange when you think about it to characterise nothing as a plural (“no thing”), but then I suppose it’s not really singular either.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    I was thinking singular shadow as well, a minor correction with “shadow” as a mass perceived as more powerful.
    Also – PS – due to budget constraints on a project I am editing an anthology and boy, Stan, do you people ever earn your money (moneys?!). I would never have thought it until now but it is brutal, painstaking and endless.

    XO
    WWW

  10. Stan Carey says:

    traduccionvalencia: None also falls under notional agreement: it can be singular or plural, depending on which makes more sense in the context, and this has been the case since Old English. You’re right that it can seem strange to conceptualise nothing (or an absence or omission) as plural.

    WWW: The author could alternatively have written ‘the thick gloom’ or some such phrase if he was determined to make it singular. And you’re right: we editors earn our living! It’s just as well I love the work.

  11. John Cowan says:

    No man is problematic in English because it overlaps semantically with no one, but I have no problem with There was no doctor in the hospital as well as There were no doctors in the hospital.

  12. John Cowan says:

    A few days ago I read a paper called “The Diachrony of Agreement”, which talks about how notional agreement appears in languages that did not have it before. In particular, it is very rare in German, and it’s thought that the instances in the Luther Bible reflect the Latin Vulgate, which reflects the Septuagint, which reflects the Hebrew Bible. In particular, the second half of Exodus 32:6 looks like this:

    KJV: and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play

    No agreement issue, because it’s in the past tense.

    Luther: Darnach satzt [singular] sich das Volk [singular] zu essen und zu trinken und stunden [plural] auf spielen

    So “sat” agrees with “the people”, but not with “stood up”.

    Vulgate: et sedit [singular] populus [singular] comedere ac bibere et surrexerunt [plural] ludere

    Same story.

    LXX: καὶ ἐκάθισεν [singular] ὁ λαὸς [singular] φαγεῖν καὶ πιεῖν καὶ ἀνέστησαν [plural] παίζειν

    Same story!

    Hebrew: וַיֵּשֶׁב[ הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְשָׁתוֹ, וַיָּקֻמוּ לְצַחֵק.

    Sure enough, the first and second words (‘sat’ and ‘the people’) are singular and the penultimate word (‘stood up’) is plural. The pattern has been passed by translation into three successive languages, unrelated or only distantly related.

  13. maryjoyce23 says:

    Such a good read. Thank you! :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s