Plural subj., sing v.

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Tue Apr 27 17:58:07 UTC 2010

On Apr 26, 2010, at 10:21 AM, Jon Lighter wrote:

> I still cringe at s-v discord when a plural verb follows a singular
> subject
> just because the verb is immediately preceded by a singular noun.

open your books to MWDEU's entry on
   agreement, subject-verb: the principle of proximity
("principle of proximity" is due to Quirk et al., though they were
hardly the first to notice the phenomenon), where you'll see examples
from 1954 on and pointers to mentions by usage writers from 1962 on.
(no doubt both these dates could be pushed back, perhaps by many
years; MWDEU wasn't trying to establish a terminus.)

the examples are of several different types -- some involving
postnominal parentheticals, some possibly involving notional
agreement, but many with postnominal PPs (as in the example you cited,
"The parents of a brain-damaged mom fights for her right to see her
own children").

my own collection (which is admittedly unsystematic) accords with
MWDEU's discussion: found mostly in speech and in unplanned (or at
least unedited) writing; in edited writing, most likely when the head
N of the subject is widely separated from the V; and mostly (but not
entirely) SG+PL rather than PL+SG (i have other PL+SG exx in addition
to the one you cited, but only a few).

> Years of
> observation, however, (and a conscious determination not to notice
> "errors"
> only) convince me it's now the rule rather than exception, even in
> cable
> news scripts.  I cringe because when I began teaching in 1976 not even
> freshmen writers made the error terribly often.

i don't think Agreement With Nearest is in fact the rule for written
texts.  and i say this as someone willing to argue that a considerable
collection of phenomena that might, or might not, have originated in
mistakes are now, at least in some of their occurrences, aspects of
the grammatical system for many (though not all) speakers.

and, as always, i don't trust your recollections of what people, your
students or whoever, did in the past; i don't trust *my* recollections
of such things.  these impressions are highly colored by phenomena of
attention and reconstructions of past experience.

now it might be that Agreement With Nearest has been picking up in
carefully written and edited texts, but that's a hypothesis to be
investigated, not a conclusion established by someone's recollections.

arnold, wearying of giving these two lectures -- CONSULT SOURCES and
DON'T TRUST RECOLLECTIONS -- again and again

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list