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

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Wed Nov 12 16:03:25 UTC 2008

On Wed, Nov 12, 2008 at 10:50 AM, Ann Burlingham <ann at burlinghambooks.com>
> On Wed, Nov 12, 2008 at 10:35 AM, Benjamin Zimmer
> <bgzimmer at babel.ling.upenn.edu> wrote:
>> 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.
> I have no help to offer, now being stuck with an earworm of "Many a new day."

Rodgers & Hammerstein wisely avoided agreement issues by using "Many a X" with
modals ("will" and "may"):

Many a new face will please my eye
Many a new love will find me
Many a new day will dawn before I do
Many a light lad may kiss and fly
Many a new day will dawn
Many a red sun will set
Many a blue moon will shine before I do

It occurs to me that Joel's discomfort with the NYT example has to do with "many
a X" being used not as a subject but as a predicate in an existential clause:
"There was many a confessional detour." I think it would have sounded better if
it had been phrased as "Many a confessional detour was made" or something along
those lines. Perhaps this is one of those "agreement with the nearest"
situations that Arnold Zwicky has written about.

--Ben Zimmer

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

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