Swung on, and missed!

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Tue Nov 1 15:53:17 UTC 2011

On Oct 31, 2011, at 2:47 PM, Wilson Gray wrote:
> In the NYT Online:
> "And, our _relationships_ to the animals with whom (or rather which,
> _to be grammatically correct_) we live _is_ given very little status
> in our society."
> http://goo.gl/XVmrg

two things here: "which" vs. "who" as relativizer referring to animals; and the subject-verb agreement.  focusing on the latter:

  our _relationships_ to the animals with which we live _is_ given very little status in our society

this is *not* agreement with the nearest (AWN), since the plural "the animals..." is the nearest NP to the verb.  instead, it looks like a kind of notional agreement, with the whole subject NP "our relationships to the animals..." understood as a concealed question: "what our relationships to the animals... are is given..." (and so taking singular agreement).

here's a similar example (altered so as to conceal its source) that came up recently on the LLoggers internal mailing list:

  The merits of this policy has been the subject of much commentary.

i identified this at first as AWN (which is, after all, very frequent), but another LLogger suggested that it was not an inadvertent error at all, but a concealed question, conveying "What the merits of this policy are has been...", and that the choice of a singular verb in this case is not a bad one.

so these would be cases of notional agreement in competition with formal agreement.  i don't have any closely similar examples in my files, but WH-cleft examples abound (and have been commented on for at least a century); WH-clefts are semantically and formally related to concealed questions.  in ordinary WH-clefts --

(1) What we saw was/were hundreds of rabbits.
(2) Hundreds of rabbits was/were what we saw.

formal agreement with the subject predicts a singular verb in (1), but the plural predicative NP pulls some people towards the plural.  in (2) things are reversed.

then there are cleftoid examples, in things like:

(3) The problem with the situation was/were hundreds of rabbits.
(4) Hundreds of rabbits was/were the problem.

(3) very strongly prefers the singular verb; (4) prefers the plural, but not very strongly.  you can find examples going the other way, even for cases like (3) -- for instance, this gem:

  Another thorny issue are three Russian military bases on Georgian soil.
(Lawrence Sheets, “Bush to Praise Democracy During Visit”, NPR’s Morning Edition, 5/9/05)


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