Singular verbs with plural nouns

From B.D.:

I recently moved to Zürich, and the experience of living in a German-speaking canton has made me aware of a linguistic oddity in English that I'm having difficulty explaining adequately.

My bank app sends me notifications like "100 CHF have been deducted from your account." The "have" in that sentence always reminds me that English is not the programmers' first language.

In German, you'd always use the plural verb form for more than 1 of a unit, but in English, you generally treat such quantities as mass nouns: 100 francs _is_ a lot, 100 kilos _is_ heavy, etc… Except that rule doesn't seem to work for liquids, and I'm not sure why.

You wouldn't say "3 gallons of milk is in the fridge", or "3 liters of water is in the pitcher," for example. I tried to rationalize the first case by saying I'm thinking of three physical gallon jugs of milk, but that doesn't work for water in a pitcher.

Some similar cultural/conceptual differences in verb-agreement practices exist within English — the Wikipedia article on "American and British English grammatical differences" has a section on "Subject-Verb Agreement":

In British English (BrE), collective nouns can take either singular (formal agreement) or plural (notional agreement) verb forms, according to whether the emphasis is on the body as a whole or on the individual members respectively; compare a committee was appointed with the committee were unable to agree. The term the Government always takes a plural verb in British civil service convention, perhaps to emphasise the principle of cabinet collective responsibility. Compare also the following lines of Elvis Costello's song "Oliver's Army": Oliver's Army is here to stay / Oliver's Army are on their way . Some of these nouns, for example staff, actually combine with plural verbs most of the time.

In American English (AmE), collective nouns are almost always singular in construction: the committee was unable to agree. However, when a speaker wishes to emphasize that the individuals are acting separately, a plural pronoun may be employed with a singular or plural verb: the team takes their seats, rather than the team takes its seats. Such a sentence would most likely be recast as the team members take their seats. Despite exceptions such as usage in The New York Times, the names of sports teams are usually treated as plurals even if the form of the name is singular.

There's also the question of whether nouns denoting types of currency are (morphologically) plural in phrases like "100 euro(s)" — see e.g. "The European Council legislates English morphology", 10/5/2003.

A few other somewhat-relevant posts:

"We have deer and elk and bear and mice around here", 5/26/2004
"Psycholinguistics in the logging industry", 6/6/2004
"Chad back in the news", 5/30/2008
"Peeve emergence: The case of 'vinyls'", 6/12/2012
"Snowden's United States: singular or plural?", 7/1/2013

January 21, 2022 @ 6:56 am

Another weird exception: "Two million dollars is a lot of money", but "Two million dollars are in the safe" – it seems to relate to physicality in this case.

2. Philip Taylor said,

January 21, 2022 @ 7:06 am

For me (native speaker of &ltlBr.E>, age mid-70's), "100 CHF have been deducted from your account" is entirely natural and I would judge the programmer to be a native English speaker if that were the only evidence available on which to judge. In expressions such as "100 francs is a lot", "100 kilos is heavy", on the other hand, I completely agree with the author's use of "is". As to liquids, I could equally write "50 litres of water is too heavy to carry by hand" and "50 litres of water are expected to fall in my garden over the next 24 hours". To my mind, there is some subtle distinction being made as to whether one is considering the CHF / kilos / litres individually or as an indivisible entity.

3. Tim Rowe said,

January 21, 2022 @ 7:14 am

I completely agree with Philip Taylor. I'm an L1 British English speaker, and the forms that the author thinks are evidence of not being such are exactly the ones I would naturally use. It seems the author lacks awareness of the multiple varieties of English.

4. Polyspaston said,

January 21, 2022 @ 7:32 am

I wonder how long sums of money have been treated as singular in English? If you look at British political speeches from the first half of the 20th century, you find people saying things like "three hundred millions of pounds", and not "three hundred million pounds". I originally came across this in a speech by Lloyd George, and initially thought it might have been a Welsh English thing, but then I found speeches by other, English politicians doing the same thing.

5. MN said,

January 21, 2022 @ 8:18 am

This reminds me of an amusing example that was featured on Language Log a few years ago: it was something like “My family came over for Christmas. I cooked a big turkey for them/*it.”

January 21, 2022 @ 9:08 am

Another example found in the wild: "99CHF are 4 cocktails plus tip in a bar." This case is similar to "is a lot", but you can't argue that the noun after "is" affects what sounds right…

The oddness of the plural form is more pronounced when the quantity is written in a way that doesn't include plural markers, as well. "99 Francs buy 4 cocktails" sounds reasonable (though "is" would be at least as good), while "99CHF buy 4 cocktails" looks weird despite being spoken the same way.

Perhaps there's an implicit "the amount of" understood with an amount written in that way?

Another example from a Portuguese friend, translating the $2MM example above: "Dois milhões de dólares é muito dinheiro" vs "Dois milhões de dólares estão no cofre" (this latter one would benefit from an article, sounds weird referring to the 2M$ without the "the"). They expressed that it there was an implicit "quantity of" in the latter form, though: "a quantia de dois milhões de dólares é muito dinheiro"

7. John Swindle said,

January 21, 2022 @ 9:08 am

A change from "three hundred millions of pounds" to "three hundred million pounds" might be more about millions than about pounds. Today we would also say "three hundred million turkeys" instead of "three hundred millions of turkeys."

For me as an American English speaker the plural "300,000,000 turkeys have been deducted from your account" would be normal if I had had that many turkeys in my account.

8. jin defang said,

January 21, 2022 @ 9:09 am

The British say "The United States are…." whereas we in the U.S. say is. Apparently they don't believe de pluribus unam.

9. Olaf Zimmermann said,

January 21, 2022 @ 9:25 am

@jin defanged: presumably because they deem "e pluribus unum" a more appealing proposition. But that's just a wild guess.

10. John Swindle said,

January 21, 2022 @ 9:29 am

@jin defang: Conventional wisdom is that "the United States are" became "the United States is" after the Civil War. I don't know whether that's true.

My Latin isn't good enough for "de pluribus unam." I used to think the US motto "e pluribus unum" ("out of many, one") meant "one of many." Uncharacteristically modest, I thought.

[(myl) The facts seems to be more complex than that conventional wisdom (more properly, conventional pontification) suggests — see

"Life in these, uh, this United States", 11/24/2005
"The United States as a subject", 10/6/2009
"When did the Supreme Count make us an 'is'?", 10/7/2009
"When did U.S. presidents make us an 'is'", 10/16/2009
"'The United States' as a subject at the Supreme Court", 10/20/2009
]

11. VVOV said,

January 21, 2022 @ 9:30 am

American English speaker here, I also thought the sentence "100 CHF have been deducted from your account" looked completely fine. However, that's possibly because I "pronounced" the abbreviation CHF in my head as "Swiss francs", which is explicitly plural. If I force myself to read it as "100 cee aitch eff…", then the singular verb "has" sounds better.

January 21, 2022 @ 9:30 am

I'm going to add my voice to the list, as a native (American) English speaker, I have zero problem either with "100 dollars has been deducted from your account" or "100 dollars have been deducted from your account", but find the latter (which you're claiming is ungrammatical) to be *less* awkward-sounding.

13. Trogluddite said,

January 21, 2022 @ 9:37 am

@myl: "There's also the question of whether nouns denoting types of currency are (morphologically) plural."
Although conventionally plural in British English, there are BrE dialects where units of currency, along with most other units of measurement, take singular nouns. Here in Yorkshire, it is still common to hear e.g: "it cost ten thousand pound", "I'm ten mile from home", "stay six foot apart" (the final example makes clear that this is a singular/plural distinction, not merely the accent eliding final /s/ or /z/).

14. Ralph J Hickok said,

January 21, 2022 @ 9:51 am

Maybe I'm just weird, but I would certainly say "3 liters of water is in the pitcher" and "2 million dollars is in the safe."

15. Mark P said,

January 21, 2022 @ 9:57 am

When I read, “One hundred dollars have been deducted from your account,” I picture someone taking single dollar bills out of a safe one at a time.

16. J.W. Brewer said,

January 21, 2022 @ 10:45 am

Maybe this is different from the examples in the original post, but ""For most people, three gallons of water is too much to consume in one day" (found on the internet) sounds perfectly idiomatic to me.

My working hypothesis for "$14.30 has been deducted from your account" (another example I found on the internet) is that "money" is a mass noun, so a specified amount of money is likewise treated as a mass noun, even if the word "money" does not explicitly appear in the sentence. The better analysis of mass nouns imho is not that they are "singular" but that the singular/plural distinction makes no sense as applied to them and the grammatical rule is for them to agree with the same verb forms that singular count nouns do. Consider the difference between "How much is left in your bank account?" (implied but unstated mass noun, but expecting an answer quantified in plural dollars) and "How many dollars are left in your bank account?" (plural count noun). Further to Mark P.'s point, it probably helps that most people nowadays understand the action in "$14.30 has been deducted" to be a single electronic bookkeeping entry. I.e., people are mostly not thinking even metaphorically of there being a special drawer in the safe at the bank full of "their money" in physical form from which some bank employee then duly removes fourteen dollar bills plus thirty pennies.

17. J.W. Brewer said,

January 21, 2022 @ 10:53 am

Here's a minimal pair I found Out There via googling (both taken from fiction, both in the voice of the relevant narrator).

A. "Maybe five beers were enough. I hated hangovers worse than a Novocain-free root canal …"

B. "Kevin had passed out; five beers was enough to put him under for the night."

FWIW neither of these, considered in isolation, offend my native-speaker ear or indeed sound so noteworthy as to require analysis – it's the opposite of the sort of syntactic variation where each option somehow sounds a bit off and makes me wonder if the other would be better.

18. Joe said,

January 21, 2022 @ 11:03 am

In English it really depends on whether the subject noun is countable or uncountable – whether the number is discrete or continuous. We might say "3 cartons of milk *are* in the fridge" despite "3 gallons of milk *is* in the fridge", because cartons *are* countable but milk *is* not. You could also have "two and a half gallons of milk *is* there" or "half a gallon of milk *is* there" because there are fractions of gallons, unlike cartons. The key is that gallons are just a quantity of the amount (not number) of milk, and milk, a collective noun, is actually the grammatical subject. A quantity can even be singular while the subject is countable and plural: "a handful of partiers *are* refusing to leave".

19. J.W. Brewer said,

January 21, 2022 @ 11:14 am

By coincidence, the song mentioned in the original post's block quote as interestingly using both "is" and "are" for the same NP in successive lines was just back in the news this month due to its composer's sense that certain lexical taboos have significantly strengthened in the 43 years since it was recorded. https://ultimateclassicrock.com/elvis-costello-olivers-army/

20. Coby Lubliner said,

January 21, 2022 @ 12:11 pm

I remember that, a long time ago — when I was living in Germany and German was my primary language — being struck when I heard, in a newsreel, Dean Acheson say "the United States is…" In German, :"die Vereinigten Staaten ist…" is unthinkable.

21. Michael said,

January 21, 2022 @ 1:36 pm

As an AmE speaker, both "3 liters of water is in the pitcher" AND "3 liters of water are in the pitcher" sound bizarre and unnatural to me – I can't imagine formulating that sentence in that word order. However, "there's (is) three liters of water in that pitcher" sound s fine, and "there are three liters of water in that pitcher" sounds a bit weird, but acceptable.

22. Jerry Friedman said,

January 21, 2022 @ 1:37 pm

John Swindle and MYL:

An ngram search for "The United States is + has" versus "The United States are+have", both at the start of a sentence, suggests that a sharp change occurred from 1872 to 1875. I don't know what to make of that, except that (for the benefit of some readers) it wasn't long after our Civil War.

23. Martha said,

January 21, 2022 @ 2:21 pm

Regarding:
A. "Maybe five beers were enough. I hated hangovers worse than a Novocain-free root canal …"
B. "Kevin had passed out; five beers was enough to put him under for the night."

To me, in A, you're talking about how many servings of beer he had (countable), whereas in B, you're talking about how much beer by volume (not countable). So the choice between the two forms depends on how you're thinking of the quantity.

(I'm American.)

24. Andrew Usher said,

January 21, 2022 @ 6:34 pm

The issue here concerns 'mass quantities', that is, things conceived of normally as continuously variable even when plural nouns (and not mass nouns) are used to speak of them. These are measurements, including time and money. There, we have a choice between literal agreement (plural) and notional agreement (singular) as done with mass nouns, and usage can vary even if many would like to prescribe the latter as more logical.

A similar issue is present in the less/fewer distinction: all prescriptive authorities that understand the distinction will say 'less' is right for mass quantities, but people do not always follow – it seems 'fewer miles per gallon' is as common as the other, though I wouldn't want to say it.

k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

25. AntC said,

January 21, 2022 @ 8:39 pm

With the 50-50 split in the Senate (and retaining the filibuster):

The United States is not united.

The United States are not united.

26. Peter Taylor said,

January 22, 2022 @ 5:40 am

Further to Trogluddite's comment about units of currency in British English, I don't think that the slang term "quid" is often pluralised even in those dialects which would pluralise the formal synonym "pound": "ten quid for that widget is a rip-off" vs "ten pounds for that widget is a rip-off".

27. ~flow said,

January 22, 2022 @ 6:28 am

@ Trogluddite: (singular measure words in Yorkshire)

The funny thing about German measure words is that they are mosre often than not in the singular *but* demand a plural verb when the quantity calls for it. So we say "ein Glas Wein steht auf dem Tisch" but "zwei Glas Wein stehen auf dem Tisch" (although in this case the latter can be "Gläser"). Some measure words virtually never take an overt plural and this concerns the majority of the many SI units that end in -er like Meter, Liter and so on; this they have in common with other German nouns ending in -er. Some cannot reasonably take a plural: ?"3 Märker" is a rather jocular version of the more common "3 Mark", but "3 Euros" is quite common along with "3 Euro". In this case it does not seem to be the pennies/pence difference between the collective sum and the individual coins because I can with the same ease switch between "1000 Euros" and "1000 Euro" and neither will likely come in 1€ coins. The CHF (Schweizer Franken) is yet another common measure word that morphologically cannot form a distinct plural, yet it is "hier is ein Franken" (*not* *"ein Franke" which is something different altogether) and "hier sind zwei Franken". As for G. "Dollar", it seems to have been following "Meter" and the like in having no plural form, but "Dollars" is nowadays acceptable for amounts of \$2 and above.

28. Terry K. said,

January 22, 2022 @ 10:20 am

I'm curious about the alleged "liquids" exception in the original post. B.D. claims they wouldn't say "3 gallons of milk is in the fridge", or "3 liters of water is in the pitcher". Would they say 3 gallons of milk are in the fridge", or "3 liters of water are in the pitcher"? I wouldn't say any of those, with either verb. For the liters of water in the pitcher, while the "is" version sounds odd, the "are" version sounds worse. (Gallons of milk is different because gallon here can mean a gallon size container.)

I'd say "There's three gallons of milk in the fridge". But as covered on Language Log, "there's" gets used with plural nouns, so not meaningful to this discussion. "There are 3 gallons of milk in the fridge" sounds too formal for the subject.

Perhaps another sentence. "Three gallons of milk is more than I can drink in one day". That sounds fine, whereas "Three gallons of milk are more than I can drink in one day" would be wrong, I would say.

29. Philip Taylor said,

January 22, 2022 @ 11:16 am

"I don't think that the slang term 'quid' is often pluralised even in those dialects which would pluralise the formal synonym "pound": "ten quid for that widget is a rip-off" vs "ten pounds for that widget is a rip-off"" — I agree, with one notable exception : the phrase "quids in". OUP offer this example: "put your brain power to the test—you could be quids in with a cash prize".

En passant, I note that I write "OUP offer" and not "OUP offers" — clearly I regard OUP as a plural noun when not preceded by the definite article.

30. Dara Connolly said,

January 22, 2022 @ 7:07 pm

Quantities expressed as "number + unit" are generally singular.
5 kilometers is a short commute.
15 pounds is a heavy load for a young child to carry.

"100 dollars" could be conceptualised as either a quantity of money expressed as a number + unit, in which case I would expect it to be singular, or a number of dollar bills, in which case I would expect it to be plural.

31. Eric TF Bat said,

January 22, 2022 @ 9:27 pm

Australian here, mostly monolingual apart from high school French and some Klingon, plus also about 30 programming languages.

I would add to this puzzle the vexed question of inch worms, as in the song: two and two are four, four and four are eight, and so on. That always sounded wrong to me. I think it should be two and two IS four, four and four IS eight.

Things to consider: two plus two definitely IS (not ARE) four. And if you're into binary logic, two AND two is, of course, two, as is two OR two, though two XOR two is zero.

My feeling is that if the thing on the left of the to-be verb is a singular unit (the result of a calculation, a pile of money, a federal presidential-constitutional republic, etc) then it takes the singular verb, whereas if it's a collection of units (numbers, individual notes of currency, a mess of competing interests stoking dissent for their own evil ends, etc) then it takes the plural.

I don't see AI and natural language parsing sorting this out any time soon.

32. Francis Boyle said,

January 23, 2022 @ 4:35 am

To Philip Taylor's "quids in', which I wasn't aware of, I would add the very Australian "I wouldn't be dead for quids" (meaning wouldn't want to miss it).

33. maidhc said,

January 23, 2022 @ 5:54 am

There used to be someone on CBC radio back in the 1970s who did a kind of comedy sports presentation. He went by the name of Joe Fan.

One of the features of his act was that he would never use plural nouns. It was all "I drank three beer". Listening to him was a bit jarring, which I suppose was what was intended.

I assumed that what he was doing was a parody of something or someone, but I never figured out exactly what.

34. maidhc said,

January 23, 2022 @ 6:06 am

One aspect of the discussion is whether one is talking about a volume or a container.

For example, you could say "he had a liter of milk in his hand". What you really mean is that he had a liter container of milk in his hand. No one could hold such a volume of liquid without a container.

You could even say (this example comes from someone else), "she hit him with the milk". That really means the container.

35. Philip Anderson said,

January 23, 2022 @ 7:02 am

I tend to agree with the other British, except “10 pounds has been deducted” sounds better to me, but the alternative doesn’t jar, while it has to be “10 pence has” – the number vs quantity distinction is explicit in the difference between pennies and pence.

I would normally say “the United States is”, unless talking about a team – “the United States are playing well”, but that’s analogous to the British “Liverpool are playing well”.

@AntC
Since the political division is essentially along state lines, “the United States are divided” makes a humorous point, but “the United States is also divided by wealth”.

36. David Marjanović said,

January 23, 2022 @ 4:40 pm

but "3 Euros" is quite common along with "3 Euro".

Huh. Where have you heard Euros or Dollars? I never have.

Is that because I'm from well outside the zone where -s plurals are native? But I'm young enough to use some of them anyway…

(Austria used to have a plural Schillinge for 1-Schilling coins up to the introduction of the € in 2002. But it was quite rare.)

Quantities expressed as "number + unit" are generally singular.
5 kilometers is a short commute.
15 pounds is a heavy load for a young child to carry.

I disagree: is agrees with the singulars commute and load.

the political division is essentially along state lines

Not remotely. It's every single city + suburbs + Black Belt + Reservations against almost all the countryside. That's why there are (as of 2020) more Trump voters in California than in Texas, more Biden voters in Texas than in New York, and so on along a long list of surprises.

37. Philip Taylor said,

January 23, 2022 @ 4:56 pm

David — as a native Briton who speaks a little German, I would say "three Euros" in English but "drei Euro" in German. And although I speak no American, I would also say "three dollars" if an item were so priced.

38. SusanC said,

January 23, 2022 @ 6:47 pm

As a British English speaker: quid can be plural in the idiomatic phrase "quids in", but is otherwise singular unless you're deliberately mangling the grammar as a joke.

300CHF could be treated as either singular or plural,

39. Antonio L. Banderas said,

January 24, 2022 @ 1:37 am

@David Marjanović

Whaddya exactly mean by "Where have you heard Euros or Dollars?"?
Do you really say "I only have 3 dollar in my pocket"?

40. John F said,

January 24, 2022 @ 5:02 am

'100 CHF have' seems fine.

But this is just going to get me started on the BBC news website using 'the team are' when in nearly every case it should be 'the team is'. end grump.

41. Philip Taylor said,

January 24, 2022 @ 5:37 am

John — I have no problem with "the team are", and it is probably the form that I would use whenever both variants are possible, but may I ask you this — would you say/write "the team are divided on one point", or "the team is divided …", and would you say "the team is in danger of breaking up" or "the team are …" ?

42. David Marjanović said,

January 24, 2022 @ 10:55 am

Whaddya exactly mean by "Where have you heard Euros or Dollars?"?
Do you really say "I only have 3 dollar in my pocket"?

~flow and I were talking about German. In German, I absolutely would say ich habe nur drei Dollar in der Tasche, never *Dollars.

43. Dennis Paul Himes said,

January 24, 2022 @ 1:21 pm

The "millions of" construction, which also exists as "thousands of", might be influenced by the Latin word for thousand, "mille". In the singular (i.e. for one thousand) it's an adjective. In the plural it's a noun. So "a thousand people" is "mille homines", but "two thousand people" is "duo milia hominum", literally "two thousands of people".

44. Josh R said,

January 25, 2022 @ 8:58 pm

We don't even need to go to Latin to find the partitive genitive, it was predominantly used in Old English. In Beowulf we see such constructions as "twelf wintra" (twelve of winters), or "hund missera" (one hundred of half-years = 50 years). The use of "of" for the construction is probably influenced by Norman French, to accommodate the atrophy of the English case system.

45. Andrew Usher said,

January 25, 2022 @ 11:51 pm

I believe that genitive of number is common IE; it shows up everywhere even if the distribution is different. In modern English 'of' has replaced most of the uses of the genitive case, so there's no need for a special explanation here.

46. Andreas Johansson said,

January 27, 2022 @ 2:16 am

However, that's possibly because I "pronounced" the abbreviation CHF in my head as "Swiss francs", which is explicitly plural.

Hm. I should apparently update my mental pronunciation of "CHF" in English, because I've always thought of the singular and plural alike as "Swiss frang".

47. Andrew Usher said,

January 27, 2022 @ 8:51 am

Where did you get that? I am not aware of any native English speaker, in English, not sounding the final consonants. Not do I know of any language in which the word ends with the velar nasal.

48. Andreas Johansson said,

February 2, 2022 @ 3:00 am

From my native Swedish, presumably, where "franc" and "francs" are both [fraŋ:].