Here’s two posts on grammatical concord

March 8, 2016

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.


Grammatical disagreement through false attraction

May 22, 2015

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.

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‘Smuggle plot tomatoes’ and other distant compounds

June 27, 2012

I’ve written before about noun pileups, where nouns pile up to form strange or baffling strings, typically in headlines, such as “Slough sausage choke baby death woman jailed”. Some, like “Ben Douglas Bafta race row hairdresser James Brown ‘sorry’”, are almost parse-proof.

There are also noun compounds that don’t grow to great length, but still manage to be obscure unless you’re already following the story they relate to. Today’s BBC News website contains the following headline:

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News website headline noun pile-up amusement

June 6, 2010

A common characteristic of headlinese — the form of English used in news headlines — is the presence of noun pile-ups (aka noun piles, noun clusters, noun stacks, etc.). The BBC excels at them, offering many modest pile-ups every day, and occasionally a more eye-catching example.

Browsing the site yesterday, I saw among its “most read” stories a teaser that was simultaneously horrific and hilarious: “Sausage baby death woman jailed”. Upon clicking through, the headline grew, and became a little clearer:

The syntax may be dubious, but the sad and gruesome gist of the “Slough sausage choke baby death woman jailed” story is easy to guess from these seven words, and the bizarre juxtapositions in this keyword-heavy phrase probably enticed a few readers who might not have been tempted by a blander headline (or “hed”, in journalist jargon). It may seem like tabloidese, but the convention is well established in reputable news agencies, especially with developing stories that presume some familiarity on the part of the reader.

The press on this side of the Atlantic indulge in headline noun pile-ups much more than their American counterparts. Headsup: the blog, which monitors these matters closely, observed that “British hed writers can pull an attributive noun across a lot more barriers than we can [in the U.S.]”, and notes an exception in the Rupert-Murdoch-owned foxnews.com, which offers such far-out formulations as “Pregnant frying pan attack teen surrenders”. Language Log considers the transatlantic difference a sociological and linguistic puzzle.

You might say, hed noun pile-up geography difference puzzle.


37 per cent of my favourite things

May 24, 2010

Have you ever wondered what proportion of words are nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs? According to the word specialists at Oxford Dictionaries,

The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of interjections, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. These figures take no account of entries with senses for different parts of speech (such as noun and adjective).

This is an interesting estimate, but it is a crude one based on a small data pool, especially given the extent of derivation, the size of English vocabulary, and the significant variation between types of text. Just as I began to wonder in earnest about all this, I spotted a tantalising datum in A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar:

In any language, the nouns make up by far the largest category in terms of number of dictionary entries, and in texts we find more nouns than words of any other category (about 37 per cent of the words in almost any text).

Evidently there had been systematic investigation. I soon found what I presume was the authors’ source: “About 37% of Word-Tokens are Nouns”, a paper by Richard Hudson that appeared in Language in 1994. Hudson, an emeritus professor of linguistics at University College London, examined two major corpora and related studies: the Brown University corpus of a million words of written American English, and the Lancaster–Oslo–Bergen (LOB) corpus of a million words of British English.

Both corpora divide texts into the same 15 genre categories — press reportage, science fiction, religion, learned & scientific writings, humour, mystery & detective, etc. — and tag words according to their word class. This enabled Hudson to cross-compare, by category, between the corpora. The genres can readily be arranged into two self-explanatory supergenres that Hudson calls “informational” and “imaginative”. He observes that “the similarities are sufficiently striking to suggest an underlying constancy”:

More detailed examination of the word types in genre categories reveals that the proportion of nouns varies, as we would expect it to, but only between 33% (in learned & scientific writings) and a more “nounful” 42% (in press reportage). Hudson speculates on possible causes for the observable patterns and variations, notes that the generalisation in his paper’s title is an “oversimplification of a system which is complex but quite regular”, and describes the trends as “facts . . . in search of a theory”.

Much to my delight, the paper also contains data on the proportions of other word classes in written and spoken English and other languages from various sources, including children’s speech at different ages:

(P stands for prepositions, cN for common nouns, nN for proper nouns, pN for pronouns, V for verbs, Adj for adjectives, and Adv for adverbs.)

Hudson concludes that language has “regularities which involve the statistical probability of any randomly selected word belonging to a particular word-class”. I haven’t looked for follow-up studies yet, so I don’t know what has been made of these and similar data since 1994, but it’s a fascinating paper in its own right.


Nouns of multitude

March 23, 2009

This is quite a long and technical post so I have divided it into three sections (What; Which and why; So) and have included a lot of examples.

What

Nouns of multitude are wholes that comprise similar parts. They are a type of collective noun; examples include committee, team, government, jury, Ministry, army, group, party, crowd, flock, generation, mobstaff, department, family, crew, clergy, herd, syndicate, faculty, audience, public, company, Congress, orchestra, firm, and Parliament.

There is confusion over whether nouns of multitude are singular (the collective entity) or plural (the individuals in it). In fact they are both, or rather they can be either. This ambiguity means that there are better and worse ways to use them – but there is no definitive right and wrong way. To tease out the details we must look more closely at how they are used.

When using nouns of multitude with verbs and pronouns, the main thing is to be consistent. The following examples are not:

After the jury returns with their verdict…
The committee has agreed that after their AGM next week…

These lines are missing what is known as “notional agreement” or “notional concord”. They are unlikely to bother the casual reader, but they are likely to be revised in edited prose. More conspicuously aberrant is an example I read over the weekend:

Stan Carey - nouns of multitude in RTE rugby story

From: Ireland crowned grand slam champions, RTÉ News, 21 March 2009. The Minister’s original statement (“They are deserving winners…”) was fine; RTÉ introduced the incongruence of making team both singular and plural in the same clause.

Which and why

So if a noun of multitude can be singular or plural, which should it be, and why? The team was, or the team were? The jury finds, or the jury find? Your decision depends first on whether you are writing American or British English. The plural form is more common in BrE (The press have reacted swiftly), though the singular form is also standard (The Government anticipates). The singular form is more common in AmE (The press has reacted swiftly). But these are mere generalities; there is considerable variation.

Your decision also depends on what you want to emphasise. To stress a group’s plurality, use the plural; to stress the group as a unit, use the singular:

The department is prepared for cutbacks (the department as a whole is prepared)
The department are to be praised for their efforts (all individuals in the department deserve praise)

Sports teams usually take the plural in British English (the team were deserving winners; Liverpool are beating United), but in business contexts and AmE they can just as suitably take the singular (Manchester United is a wealthy club; Baltimore beats Browns).

If you are still unsure, a pronoun might help you decide. You would not write: “the board fought among itself” because it takes at least two to fight; this implication immediately suggests the plural: “The board fought among themselves”. (It’s easier to succumb to contradictions when speaking than when writing, and easier to ignore contradictions when listening than when reading.)

So

With these conventions and principles in mind we look again at earlier examples:

After the jury returns with their verdict…

Singular and plural forms (returns and its, or return and their, respectively) are both standard in BrE; the singular form dominates in AmE. Both are fine.

The committee has agreed that after their AGM next week…

The singular (has and its) is acceptable, but suggests a unit agreeing with itself, whereas the plural (have and their) suggests round-the-table agreement by all the members of the committee. This connotation makes the plural the better choice. Subtle distinctions sometimes accompany the verb, and might help you decide whether singular or plural is preferable.

If it doesn’t clutter your syntax, you can elaborate for the sake of accuracy and clarity, e.g. by referring to the Cabinet as the Cabinet members, or the members of the Cabinet, both of which are plainly plural. This tactic is less likely to work if the collective noun appears frequently, because it would lead to the aforementioned clutter. And you won’t see it in a headline, where concision is paramount.

Finally, using a collective noun as both singular and plural in the same context is inadvisable if you want to maintain notional agreement, but in casual or colloquial usage it presents no problem. To borrow an example from Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage:

The family is well and send their regards.

The family as a whole is [are] well, and the people in it send their regards. Were the family to send its regards, it would seem less personal.