When We Do Not Agree

Many commenters on my post of last Thursday did not agree with me. They debated many topics; they cast various slurs. Ivy hinted at a drinking problem (!). Concerned Humanist seemed to imply that I might not know fiction from nonfiction. (I do; the distinction was not relevant.) And minnesotan came close to equating me with “the fellow who claims that anything goes.” (Don’t my contributions to the 1,860 pages of rules in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language count for anything?)

One substantive and sensible comment merits discussion. It concerns agreement in the grammatical sense of inflectional concord. College students of English literature scarcely need to be told that a verb agrees with its subject noun phrase (NP), I said of rule 1: “Accidental verb-agreement failures are not that frequent, and there is no controversy about whether they are mistakes. Why waste time telling students things that nobody doubts?” Peter Christian’s comment on this was:

Actually, there’s one context where rule 1 is not infrequently broken: if the subject is a complex noun phrase where the head is singular but the rightmost component is plural, speakers and writers sometimes treat the whole NP as plural in terms of concord, particularly if the NP is long.

His example was *The price of used cars bought from private sellers are often very reasonable, where the verb agrees with the wrong NP. The head noun of the subject NP, which determines its syntactic number, is price, which is singular, so the NP the price of used cars bought from private sellers is singular, despite the two plural NPs (used cars and private sellers) embedded within it. The verb form should be is.

Errors of this sort certainly occur sporadically. But they really only underline my point. It serves no purpose to tell students that verbs must agree: The student who is misled by a temporarily salient plural noun is trying to follow the rule. The slip is in the execution. Sometimes, it seems, we look back to check the number of the subject but don’t look far enough: An irrelevant non-head noun catches our eye and we mistakenly write the verb form that agrees with it. Nobody doubts that you should make your verbs agree, but it’s not a trivial task to get it right every time when engaged in the demanding business of composing text.

And at a finer level of detail, the very notion of getting it right is surprisingly intricate. We just saw that identifying the head noun can go wrong. A commenter called Pete points out a further problem: A lot of people agree with me has the plural people as its head, not the singular lot, so the plural agree is correct. Yet as joegreen subsequently noted, group seems to be different: In A group of people appears the singular appears is correct.

These cases involve subjects with more than one noun, but even single-noun NPs can be perplexing:

  • A plural subject after the verb in an existential clause can take singular agreement in conversational English (There’s two policemen at the door and There are two policemen at the door are both natural), but never when the subject precedes (*Two policemen’s at the door is ungrammatical).
  • NPs with none can be either singular (None of us is individually guilty) or plural (None of us are eager to blame each other).
  • A plural noun that names a dish can act as if it were singular: Cornflakes is my favorite breakfast.
  • Singular NPs denoting collectivities such as sports teams typically take plural agreement in British English (Manchester City are the best team in England), but take the singular in American English even when the pronoun used to refer to the team is they (Ohio State is doing their very best …).

There is more: A slew of other such complications were discussed by Jerry Morgan four decades ago (“Verb agreement as a rule of English,” in Papers From the Eighth Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society, 1972, Pages 278-286).

What is the lesson? That there are valid rules defining Standard English grammar (it is not true that “anything goes”), but they can be intricate and nonobvious. Trying to list them as snappy little maxims on a single page is not sensible.

Luckily, most of our students already have tacit knowledge of the rules when they arrive at college. The mistakes they make are often errors of planning or style choice that involve applying the rules in tricky cases. These mistakes are not easy to diagnose or resolve. We should save our energies for assisting our students with serious grammatical and stylistic advice, instead of handing them the kind of simplistic panaceas and outright falsehoods that I discussed last Thursday.

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