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

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Wed Nov 12 17:18:20 UTC 2008

At 11/12/2008 11:03 AM, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:
>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

I don't remember the tune -- and in any case can't sing -- but might
plurals -- "Many new faces ..." not have been more
melodious?  Although the lyrics do have style as chosen.

>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"

Although this seems unsingable.  :-)

>or something along
>those lines. Perhaps this is one of those "agreement with the nearest"
>situations that Arnold Zwicky has written about.

Yes I think Ben has identified my discomfort.  I don't have the same
trouble with things like (to pick something commemorated recently)
"many a synagogue was burned", where I definitely would not say
"were".  In "there was many a detour", the verb is closest to "many",
so I think plural.  In "many a synagogue was burned", the verb is
closest to "a synagogue", so I think singular.


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