Agreement with nearest

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Joel Berson wrote to the American Dialect Society mailing list on 12 November:

In the NYTimes Thursday, Nov. 6, Alessandra Stanley wrote (in "Cheers, Tears and a Sense of the Historic Moment"), "There was many a confessional detour, from Dan Rather reminiscing … to the former White House adviser David Gergin describing …".

This seems awkward, when "there were many confessional detours" is available (and uses the same number of keystrokes).

Many a N is "notionally plural" — it refers to more than one N — but grammatically singular:

Many a linguist has/*have wondered about how to analyze this construction.

So the singular was in Stanley's sentence is just the form you'd expect. But Berson found it awkward, and others agreed with him. Ben Zimmer suggested that the problem was the proximity of the verb to many, in which case you might get "agreement with the nearest": 

There were many a confessional detour…

This still doesn't satisfy me, because the unproblematic many confessional detours is available as an alternative.

As Ben noted, there's a problem here only because the sentence is existential, with there as the grammatical subject (in subject position, preceding the verb) and a referential NP in the predicate (following the verb). In standard English, this predicative NP determines the number of the verb (with some wrinkles for there's). And if this predicative NP has the form many a N, the plural quantifier many ends up as the nearest potential determinant of agreement on the verb (while when many a N is in subject position, the singular N is not only the head of the NP but also the nearest potential determinant of agreement on the verb).

It's been a while since we looked at agreement with the nearest, so maybe a re-play of another case involving existentials is in order.

Back in January 2005, I looked at the following example:

(1) Going to his house was what I lived for. There were liquor, music, and a strong desire for my body. (J. L. King, On the Down Low (Broadway Books, 2004), p. 33)

This struck me (and many readers of ADS-L) as very awkward, even though plural agreement is what you'd expect with a compound predicative. Most of those who commented on the case preferred agreement with the nearest:

(1') Going to his house was what I lived for. There was liquor, music, and a strong desire for my body.

Of course, when the conjuncts are re-ordered so as to put a plural conjunct first, then the verb will show plural agreement (by standard English agreement or by agreement with the nearest):

(1") Going to his house was what I lived for. There were drinks, music, and a strong desire for my body.

(Determination of agreement by the predicative NP is the system of standard English. Many non-standard speakers allow, or prefer, singular verbs in existential sentences, regardless of the number of the predicative NP. In addition, many standard speakers allow there's (but not there is or there was) with plural NPs.)

It turned out that this particular case has a very long history. MWDEU says

…when a compound subject follows the verb and the first element is singular, we find mixed usage–the verb may either be singular or plural. Jespersen… explains the singular verb as a case of attraction of the verb to the first subject, and illustrates it… from Shakespeare… Perrin & Ebbitt 1972 also suggests that many writers feel the plural verb is awkward before a singular noun, and Bryant 1962 cites studies that show the singular verb is much more common in standard English.

[This formulation would take in more than just existential sentences; it would also cover a number of inverted constructions, with the subject following the verb. But existential sentences are the focus of the discussion, which comes in the there is, there are entry.

Note that MWDEU and its sources, along with much of the literature on English syntax (and virtually all the usage handbooks), assume that though there is in subject position in existential sentences, the "true subject" is the NP following the verb, what I've labeled the "predicative NP" above — because this is the constituent that determines agreement on the verb. But agreement is the ONLY test for subjecthood that picks out the post-verbal NP as subject; in every other way, there functions as the subject. The technical literature on English syntax has been wrestling for decades with this conflict in subject properties.]

The many a case is significantly different from the compound-predicative case, since the many of many a isn't a NP, but only the first word of a NP. As a result, neither singular nor plural agreement is entirely satisfactory to me, though I have no problem with sentences like (1').

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