"many a" -- singular or plural? Or just awkward?

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Wed Nov 12 15:35:31 UTC 2008

On Wed, Nov 12, 2008 at 9:19 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:
> In the NYTimes Thursday, Nov. 6, Alessandra Stanley wrote (in
> "Cheers, Tears and a Sense of the Historic Moment"), "There was many
> a confessional detour, from Dan Rather reminiscing ... to the former
> White House adviser David Gergin describing ...".
> This seems awkward, when "there were many confessional detours" is
> available (and uses the same number of keystrokes).
> Asking the prescriptivists:  Is "many a" singular or plural?  (Google
> has a mixed opinion, e.g. for "is/are" and "has been/have been" "many a".

MWDEU, though hardly doctrinaire in its prescriptivism, is pretty clear on this
one: "The phrase _many a_ is followed by a singular noun, and when that noun is
the subject of a verb, a singular verb."

It adds: "But pronoun reference, when it occurs, is governed by notional
agreement and may thus be plural or singular." That suggests the possibility of
"Many a X" with a singular verb and a plural pronoun, though MWDEU doesn't give
any examples of this.


--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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