Here’s two posts on grammatical concord

My latest two posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog are about grammatical agreement, also known as concord, and focus on the flexibility of these rules. Agreeing with grammatical concord introduces the subject and briefly explains the important difference between formal and notional agreement:

Formal agreement demands strict numerical agreement: neither of these plans is perfect; four pounds are all I have; the team was successful. Notional agreement is looser, and can correspond to the overall sense rather than the explicit number: neither of these plans are perfect; four pounds is all I have; the team were successful.

Team is like family, staff, government, crowd, audience, public, company, group, jury, and other ‘nouns of multitude’ that have a foot in both singular and plural camps. In a given context, singular or plural may work better than the other by emphasising, respectively, either the collective unit or the individual parts of the subject. Sometimes singular is preferred in one dialect, plural in another.

As my post goes on to show, it can get tricky.

*

Next I zeroed in on the phrase there is/are, which exemplifies the distinction sketched above. There are plurals, and then there’s plurals:

There are good reasons to obey formal agreement when you use a form of there is. But there’s also reasons not to, sometimes. Using there are with a plural subject, as I did at the start of this paragraph, is formally correct, and appropriate in most situations. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong or inappropriate to use there is with a plural subject, and the same goes for the reduced form there’s and the past tense there was.

Some prescriptivists would insist that a line like There’s two patients in the waiting room is wrong, end of discussion. But it’s more accurate and reasonable to just consider it less formal.

angela bourke - by salt water - short storiesTo the irritation of peevers and purists, plural nouns are used with there is (or there’s, there was, there wasn’t, etc.) not only in casual speech but in literature; my post has examples from authors such as Penelope Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, and Edna O’Brien.

A related construction, with that’s, appears in Angela Bourke’s story ‘Majella’s Quilt’ in her collection By Salt Water: ‘They think red and black are awful together, but that’s the colours I want to use.’

The one-right-way brigade may wish to limit your expressive freedom, but – as my post concludes – there’s always options in English.

Older posts can be viewed in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

11 Responses to Here’s two posts on grammatical concord

  1. Worth pointing out that there are occasions when a plural verb is formally required with an ostensibly singular subject, eg, “Chinese and Japanese furniture are very different in design”.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s true too, John. Ostensibly singular, as you say, but implicitly plural: Chinese [furniture] and Japanese furniture. Since grammatical agreement is a very broad topic, I just aimed to cover some of the basics.

  2. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Curiously, I feel far more comfortable with “four pounds is all I have” insofar the “four pounds” kinda sounds like a discrete, and therefore singular unit. Whatever, both versions are completely understandable–which is the whole point.

    There are/is a whole bunch of abstract terms, such as “human rights”/”land rights” and the like which I constantly have trouble with number agreement. Mostly I deal with it contextually, e.g. “human rights are fundamental” or “land rights is a fundamental issue” etc etc. I am sure I am inconsistent, but mostly don’t lie awake worrying about it.

    There are more important things to worry about!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Four pounds is all I have works much better for me too, Chips. It’s probably because pounds can be subdivided into pence. If pounds were all that existed in a given context, such as a game where they were the only coins used, four pounds are would feel less inappropriate.

      There are definitely far more important things to worry about! Though as an editor I’m happy to do so when I’m on the clock.

      • Chips Mackinolty says:

        The trouble sometimes with being “on the clock” is that you can angst about stuff for longer than the paymaster is willing to dole out!

        For the last decade of her life, when I was in publishing, I would use (and pay!) my mum to proofread and edit for us. She was a demon proofreader: famously once picking up a spelling variant between about page 9, and about page 81, of a word in an Aboriginal language. “I don’t care how its spelt, but at least be consistent!” was her demand. Would that we all had mothers as proofreaders (but not too close to a deadline).

  3. Singledust says:

    I am learning lots here. Pardon if I am off topic, but this post reminded me of some of the grammatical issues I encountered when I was studying English. Adding an “s” to signify plural and then deciding if it “were” or “was” drove me to desperation. Now I see that it could go either way but we had a formidable teacher who tolerated little deviation. In my mother tongue if you meant to indicate plural you just hyphened the word. Book for example is “buku” in Bahasa Malaysia so if it were plural we would say “buku-buku” with no change in sentence structure.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Gina. It often can go either way. In teaching contexts, simple rules sometimes take precedence over natural and legitimate variation, because standard English has traditionally been privileged over regional dialects and informal varieties of the language.

      Thanks for the interesting note on Malaysian. English uses reduplication too, but not normally to mark plurals. I wrote about it here a few years ago.

      • Singledust says:

        Thanks Stan for that link on reduplication. Was a very interesting read this Friday morning. We are thinking of all the other reduplicates we use daily and my kids are having a blast outdoing each other. Wonder if there are words that show variety? I note you mention plurality and intensity as well as poetry, but what about variety, meaning variety of choice, any of those? I could only think of the word knick-knack or hodge-podge, would that be right?

  4. azzurosky says:

    I recall a conversation where someone insisted to me that collective nouns must always take the singular, because you’re referring to just one thing; and that you must say a number of things “is”, not “are”, because you’re referring to just one number. When I asked how she was so sure of this she explained that she’d attended an English grammar school, where the girls were taught grammar correctly. I’m not making this up!

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