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Agree to Disagree

Robert W. Service was right.

Robert W. Service was right.

The emails come like clockwork, one or two every week. Sometimes they’re abusive, sometimes they’re  gleefully “gotcha,” and sometimes they’re civil and sincere, like this one (name of sender withheld):

I genuinely read and appreciate your articles, but this one stumped me. This sentence is near the end of your article in The Week,  published 14 March 2013: “As I noted in my previous article, the meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.”  If I was working with a student, I would correct the verb to read “changes.”  Can you give me a quick lesson if I’m incorrect?

I didn’t answer Name Withheld, and in fact I never answer these emails, unlike the other ones I get about usage issues. Why not? The first reason is my sense that the issue is kind of complicated, and that I will (one day) look into it and draft a response, to which I can then refer everybody who writes me about this. I’ll get to the second reason in a minute.

The general issue is agreement in number between subject and verb. Some of my more strident correspondents maintain that when the subject of a sentence or clause is a collective noun—such as number, bunch, collection, group, majority, or percentage—preceded by a and followed by of, the verb should be singular. This is wrong. The reliably descriptivist Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says Robert Service chose the correct verb when he wrote, “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon,” and explains why:

First, we can see two of the three forces that chiefly determine agreement—proximity and notional agreement—pulling in the direction of the plural, Second we have the plain sense of the subject-verb relation: the boys whoop, not the bunch. And if boys is the real subject of the sentence, then the phrase a bunch of is functioning essentially as a modifier—it is, in fact, very similar to what many modern grammarians call a predeterminer.

M-WDEU goes on to cite number of examples, including “A crew of Pyrates are driven,” from Gulliver’s Travels.

Even the intelligently prescriptivist Bryan Garner, in his Garner’s Modern American Usage, says, “these nouns of multitude are preferably treated as plural. … Perhaps the best-known example is a lot, which no one today thinks of as having a singular force.” That is, no one says, “A lot of people was there.”

But you will have noticed that “meaning” is not a collective noun, and that Ms. Withheld made no assertion on this point. You will suspect, perhaps, that I am stalling for time, and if so you suspect correctly. Garner puts my sort of sentence in his general taxonomy of potential pitfalls in subject-verb agreement, under the heading “False Attraction to Noun Intervening Between Subject and Verb.” This occurs, he writes, “when a plural noun intervenes between a singular subject and the verb. The writer’s eye is thrown off course by the plural noun that appears nearest the word—e.g., ‘… the ripple effect of these disruptions are [read is] incalculable.’” (The quote is from The New York Times.)

That brings me to the second reason for not responding to those emails. It’s pretty simple. I don’t like being wrong, and by not investigating the point, I was able to maintain a touchingly hopeful faith that there might be some justification for my use of “change.” Now I know that there is no such justification; I merely fell victim, like so many others, to a false attraction.

Looking on the bright side, I still don’t have to answer the emails. I can just refer them to this post.

 

 

 

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