Slippery glamour

« previous post | next post »

Roy Peter Clark is composing a new grammar book, to be called "The Glamour of Grammar". For the past couple of months, he's been posting selections on the web site of the Poynter Institute, where he's "director of the writing center, dean of the faculty, senior scholar and vice president". Each post has an email link asking readers to "Help Roy write his next book".

Yesterday, Linda Seebach sent me a link to one of these posts, "Why the Littlest Words Can Mean a Lot" (5/28/2008), drawing attention to a passage where Prof. Clark's call for help was well advised:

Articles are slippery. You might be fooled into thinking that a can only be used in the singular and that the carries the plural until you read "A million dollars will get you the rarest baseball card in the world."

This is puzzling. Taking the second part first: who exactly has ever been fooled into thinking that "the carries the plural"? Let's examine the current "centerpiece story" on the Poynter Institute's web site (Mallary Jean Tenore, "Stakes, Expectations Rise as Copy Desks Shrink"). In the first three paragraphs, if I've counted right, there are 16 uses of the, among which 11 are singular and 5 are plural:

The stakes have always been high for copy editors, the last set of eyes to see a story before it hits the presses or the Web. Now, as copy desks nationwide shrink, the stakes are even higher.

Especially troubling for some is the controversial trend of news organizations outsourcing copy editing work. Recent news of the Orange County (Calif.) Register outsourcing copy editors has gained attention in the blogosphere and comes at a time when journalists such as The Washington Post's Gene Weingarten and The New York Times' Lawrence Downes are using words like elegy and death to describe copy editing.

Those in charge of hiring copy editors aren't so quick to call copy editing a dying profession, but they know change is on the horizon. The future they envision for copy editors includes a merging of responsibilities, a greater focus on editing blogs and multimedia and an understanding that even with fewer resources, the basic fundamentals of copy editing still need to be upheld. Outsourcing, meanwhile, has reminded them of the importance of knowing a coverage area at the local level so they can catch mistakes that might otherwise find their way onto sites like "Regret the Error."

No one who inspects even such a small, random fragment of English text could possibly think that the is limited to plural heads. And although I've seen some bizarrely unempirical claims about English, I can't imagine that even the most hermetically self-involved observer would seriously entertain a generalization that is so frequently falsified in every English-language document ever published.

OK then, maybe by "the carries the plural" Prof. Clark didn't mean that noun phrases starting with the are always plural, but rather that plural noun phrases always start with the. I'll leave it to the reader to find the 13 examples of the-less plural noun phrases in the same three paragraphs that we just mined for singular the. However I twist it around, I can't find any way to construe the phrase "the carries the plural" that is likely to have fooled any sentient reader of English.

What about the other part of Prof. Clark's allegedly natural pair of misconceptions, that "a can only be used in the singular"? The trouble is, this generalization isn't a misconception, it's actually true.  And Prof. Clark's counterexample — "a million dollars" — is … well, a bit, um … carelessly analyzed.

The grammar of numbers in English includes not only single-word numbers like three but also multi-word phrasal numbers like a hundred (and) seventy five or six thousand four hundred (and) two or twenty three thousand. And as part of this system, there are certain numbers —  a hundred, a thousand, a million, and so on — where the indefinite article a joins with (what at least historically was) a nominal head, with the a in this context expressing more or less the same meaning as the number one. The result (e.g. "a hundred" or "a dozen") is itself a number, which takes a plural head noun, just as other numbers greater than one do. Thus we have "a million dollars" or "a dozen eggs", with essentially the same structure as "ten dollars" or "three eggs" — or "ten million four hundred and seventy nine thousand two hundred and ten dollars".

In other words, whatever else is going on here, the relevant structure of "a million dollars" is not this (leaving out node labels):

Rather, it's this:

If you prefer seeing the analysis with brackets instead, it's [ [a million] dollars], not [a [million dollars]].

Thus the head word that a is "used with" in this case is million, not dollars. And million is morphologically singular.

Historically, I think, this was a sort of partitive construction, of the sort that can still be seen in e.g. Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour:

[B]y S. George , I was the first man, that entred the breach: and, had I not effected it with resolution, I had beene slaine, if I had had a million of liues.

The modern grammar of numbers of English is a bit special in a number of ways — for example, words like hundred and thousand and million generally stay singular even when combined in forms like "three hundred" or "ten million". But whatever the morphosyntactic peculiarities of this corner of English grammar, it's clear that "a million dollars" is *not* evidence that a can ever be used with a plural head.

So I'd advise Prof. Clark to remove the whole paragraph that starts "Articles are slippery". The only trouble is, that leaves the rest of the essay. There are some nice suggestions in it — for example, to consider the effects of interchanging a and the in familiar titles — but the analysis of definiteness and indefiniteness is confused and confusing. Consider this complaint:

I'd like to object for a moment, on behalf of the word a to the designation "indefinite." For while a may not give us the defining example, it offers an effect writers crave: the power of particularity.

That's roughly like the author of a high-school physics textbook objecting to the term "angular momentum" because it's often applied to rounded objects.


  1. Lance said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 12:45 am

    My impression on a casual scan of his columns is that he quite generally doesn't know what he's talking about. In this one, on the possessive, he says

    Professor Strunk tells us to add apostrophe plus s no matter the final consonant in the noun and cites as examples "Charles's friend" and "Burns's poems."

    This makes great sense to me because it echoes the way we would speak the word aloud. So it puzzles me that the "Associated Press Stylebook," an influential work for journalists, argues that a simple apostrophe suffices after proper nouns ending in s, as in Agnes' book and Jules' seat. I don't know about you, but when I read those aloud, the missing s hurts my ears, and on the page it hurts my eyes. I would say Agnes's book and Jules's seat.

    My understanding is that those who write "Agnes' book" do so because they pronounce it that way. That's my memory of the advice in the Chicago Manual of Style, anyway. So his advice is egocentric, and misses the point.

  2. john riemann soong said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:05 am

    Classic opportunity to use the Wug test.

  3. john riemann soong said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:12 am

    Speaking of hurting ears, has there been any research on grammar "alarm bells"? What I find funny is that they go off even when the "problematic" sentence is perfectly comprehensible. I suppose we shan't find a neurochemical pathway for the response any time soon, but the "alarm bell" strikes me as sort of a language version of a biological "allergic reaction" — not necessarily rational and sometimes harmful. I sometimes wonder if it's an evolutionary aversion to speakers "not of your tribe".

  4. Morten Jonsson said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:19 am

    About "the," I think Clark means not that it's used exclusively in the plural or that all plural noun phrases take the definite article, but that when such a phrase takes an article, it's the definite one. He's not ruling out that "the" has singular applications as well (which should be obvious even to a language guru). He would have made that clearer if he'd written something like "[i]a[/i] can only be used in the singular and . . . [i]the[/i] carries the plural [as well as the singular]." Note that he says "only" to refer to the use of "a," not "the."

    I won't try to defend the rest.

    Personally, I say "Agnes's."

  5. Morten Jonsson said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:23 am

    Love that HTML coding.

  6. Cheryl Thornett said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:25 am

    The use of articles is certainly one of the more difficult areas for people learning English as a second (or third, or fourth) language. The approach of many beginning level textbooks might lead some language learners to conclude that a/an is singular and the is plural, even though the textbooks I am most familiar with use countable/uncountable as one of the first distinctions, along with general/specific.

  7. Boris Blagojević said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 4:02 am

    "The use of articles is certainly one of the more difficult areas for people learning English as a second (or third, or fourth) language."
    That it is. By now, I must have read more than a hundred thousand pages of English, and still, if I see a sentence that uses (or doesn't use) an article ungrammatically, I can realize it's wrong only after I think about it.
    And it seems so strange that anybody would really need and use those things. More so when I see how often English speakers seem puzzled when they hear that some languages do not have them at all.

    Anyway, texts like this one don't help. But at least Prof. Clark does seem interested in suggestions.

  8. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 5:09 am

    Lance, I'm with Clark and Strunk: "Agnes's". Many people even write "the boss' wife", which is ludicrous.

  9. Stephen Jones said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 6:13 am

    where Prof. Clark's call for help was well advised:

    Where's the info Clark is a professor, or indeed has any other affiliation with an academic institution?

    Is it that I don't get American irony, or do you have secret information that he really is a professor, which will no doubt make me less unhappy about never having got higher than lecturer.

  10. James Wimberley said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 9:00 am

    A nice counterexample on the-plurals is the common misquotation of the title of Darwin's 1859 masterwork as The Origin of the Species. This reflects the anthropocentric error that the book is about human origins, which Darwin in fact prudently avoided until much later in The Descent of Man (1871). Here "the" marks a singular and its absence a plural, since the noun species is invariant.

  11. Morten Jonsson said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 9:07 am

    Stephen, the link to Clark's name informs us that he is "director of the writing center, dean of the faculty, senior scholar and vice president" at the Poynter Institute. In other words, he teaches there. "Professor" is a sort of default title in this case, not necessarily his formal one. He might, of course, prefer to be called "Director Dean Vice President Clark, sir," but somehow I doubt it. That the Institute seems not to be an accredited institution is not relevant; there's no law that says they can't use those job designations.

  12. Bob said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 10:01 am

    My interpretation of Clark was the same as Morten Jonsson's above: that he meant 'a' only takes singular, while 'the' can take either. Considering the content of the rest of the article, he can't possibly believe that 'the' only takes plural.

  13. Norwegian said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 10:16 am

    'The New York Times' is singular, not plural. We say 'The New York Times is a newspaper', not 'The New York Times are a newspaper'.

  14. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

    @Norwegian: "The" is part of the newspaper's name. Therefore, what matters is not that "The New York Times" is used as a singular proper noun to refer to the newspaper, but that "New York Times" itself is plural inside the title and would theoretically take the plural definite article if English had such a distinction. (This is complicated by the fact that many people use "New York Times" alone to refer to the paper; but Clark isn't doing so, as we can tell by the fact that he capitalizes the "The" in its name.)

  15. David Marjanović said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

    Here "the" marks a singular and its absence a plural

    It could, but it doesn't necessarily do that. If you interpret it as short for "the origin of all species that ever lived", it is plural…

    But the real title is different anyway. It's "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life". Here the absence of an article marks a rather pointless indefiniteness: "the origin of species in general", not "the origin of those species I'm talking about" such as "the origin of all species".

    Works the same way in German, BTW. Except that there are stylistic conventions that prefer definiteness in cases like this one.

  16. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    Lance and Adrian Bailey bring up the vexed question of possessives for nouns spelled with a final S. This is well off-topic, but it's a matter we've looked at several times in the past on Language Log: notably here on Justice Scalia's usage; here on consistency, with a section on the advice in the Chicago Manual of Style 15; and here, on the possessive of Arkansas, quoting from a Jan Freeman column, with a survey of usage advice .

    The short summary is that different manuals give different advice, both on the general scheme for marking the possessive in writing and on a number of specific cases. CMS 15, in fact, offers two alternative schemes.

    Some of the specific cases present entertaining features. Here's a quote from Harper’s, February 2007, pp. 20-1:

      From questions posed on the website of The Chicago Manual of Style, answered by the University of Chicago Press manuscript-editing department.

      Q: Is there an acceptable way to form the possessive of words such as Macy’s and Sotheby’s? Sometimes rewording to avoid the possessive results in less felicitous writing.

      A: Less felicitous than “Sotheby’s’s”? I don’t think so.

  17. Russell said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    There are, however, a few cases where it really looks like "a" is acting funky:

    – He was there for a good seven years.
    – An additional three people are required.
    – A mere four nations recognize that standard.
    – She collected an amazing and heretofore unprecedented forty million dollars.

    That is, some modifiers (good, additional, …) require both a quantified noun phrase and that you use the determiner "a" (or maybe a few others). An alternative is to call "a good" and "an additional" complex determiners (the CGEL seems to do this). But doing that for [[an amazing … forty million] dollars] would at least require some non-trivial rules of semantic composition.

  18. Nik Berry said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

    Ah. Engaged brain (it's the day after 4th July – brain's a bit damaged). It seems odd to me because I would use "search on" to describe the field or data type to search, not the content, e.g. "search on gender and date".

    I'm a Systems Programmer.

    (Oh yeah, I'm a Brit, but I do celebrate the 4th of July. I have a T shirt that reads "4th of July – Celebrating the liberation of Britain from the incessant whining of bloody colonials." No one's killed me yet.

  19. Nik Berry said,

    July 5, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

    Sorry, last comment was meant for "Seven words you can't say in a cartoon". No idea how it ended up here :(

RSS feed for comments on this post