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

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Wed Nov 12 19:35:08 UTC 2008

On Nov 12, 2008, at 9:18 AM, Joel S. Berson wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Re: "many a" -- singular or plural? Or just awkward?
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> At 11/12/2008 11:03 AM, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:
>> ... 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.
> 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.

nice case.  the earlier example i discussed was in:
   AZ, 1/27/05: Agreement with nearest always bad?

a side point is the choice between "many a X" and "many Xs".  i
haven't looked at the matter at all, but i suspect that many people
see a subtle difference between the two.


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