Grammar by the numbers

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The question came up the other day in a Monitor article from the Middle East: "A poll shows that a third of Palestinians want to leave because of violence and economic woes."

"Shouldn't 'a third' take a singular verb, 'wants'?" an editor asked. After a flurry of instant messages, the decision was no. The plural verb remained: "A third ... want."

Welcome to the world of "notional agreement." This is a somewhat controversial concept that copy editor Bill Walsh of The Washington Post has promoted of late.

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The idea is that meaning can trump form. In this case, although "a third" is a singular noun, it refers to a group of people definitely plural in number and so takes a plural verb.

This sentence follows a pattern: "half of all incoming freshmen," "most of the Senate," "some of my closest friends," and so on. In this pattern, the object of the preposition – what comes after "of" – is critical.

"The Palestinians" may be "a people," but for polling purposes they are a group of individuals whose individual views were presumably the whole point of the poll.

Mr. Walsh is onto something with "notional agreement," but it's a principle to be invoked sparingly. I'd try to reach a decision on some other basis first.

Another "number" issue that comes up is how to think of an organization, especially a business. Is this an "it" or a "they"?

"At the Smith Company, they do things right." Well, OK, in an advertising slogan. But if it's part of some standard expository prose, a nit-picking copy editor may ask, "What's the antecedent for the pronoun 'they'?" Or to translate into ordinary English, "Who are 'they' supposed to be?"

"They" are presumably the people who work there. Isn't that understood? Arguably. But good writing avoids making the reader fill in little gaps like that.

It's worse with sports teams. Consider an instance like "South Carolina is looking for their third win." Doug Fisher of the University of Southern California, who has challenged Walsh on "notional agreement," thinks this one ought to be "its third win." The case to make for "their," he says, would be that "we're not talking about the school" – singular – "but about a handful of guys" – plural – "out to win a football game."

Many team names are straightforwardly plural – the Celtics, the Patriots – and also lend themselves to straightforward singulars: "It was the last time he suited up as a Celtic."

Other team names lack that flexibility. To speak of a single Red Sock suggests something unfortunate happened in the laundry room.

Some of my favorites are the newer conceptual names: the New England Revolution and the Chicago Fire, for instance, of major league soccer. Both are distinctly singular. And yet they are often paired with plural verbs: "The New England Revolution are currently selling season tickets," that team's website announced a while back.

This sounds like a BBC bulletin on football (soccer) results: "Manchester United have defeated Arsenal." It always sounds so veddy, veddy BBC. But it's based on a principle that Americans might do well to follow: A singular collective noun – group, team, staff, family – can take a singular or plural verb, depending on whether its members are acting severally or in concert.

If we're talking about winning a game, though, I have to wonder what the point is of emphasizing a team's "severalness." Didn't they win because they all pulled together, acting as one – deserving a singular verb? Yes, they did.

Oops. I suppose that ought to be, "Manchester United won because it all pulled together." Or maybe not.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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