More on verb agreement as a judgment call

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Another case of agreement being a judgment call: which of the following (note the agreement forms of the underlined verbs) is correct?

We can't leave the garden unwatered during what is usually the hottest sixty days of the year.

We can't leave the garden unwatered during what are usually the hottest sixty days of the year.

It is often assumed by the general public that in grammar there is always just one version that is correct, all others being incorrect. (Think of the number of people who believe that in a given relative clause either that or which can be grammatically correct, and it can't be that both are grammatically perfect.) At the very least, they think that only one version can be correct for expressing a given meaning, so that a choice between agreement forms would have to mean a choice between saying one thing correctly and saying an entirely different thing.

That doesn't seem to be the case here. I think the phrase is usually the hottest sixty days of the year and are usually the hottest sixty days of the year mean exactly the same thing, in this sense: if either of the examples above were true in some situation, the other would be as well.

There is, of course, a subtle difference in suggested viewpoints: the first example suggests a focus on a single period being the hot period of the year, while the second looks at the days invididually and says of them that they are the hottest consecutive sixty of the year. But nothing else follows from the view taken. You could call it a structural ambiguity if you like — one version has a singular verb phrase and the other a plural verb phrase (the pronoun what happens to show no number inflection, so it is happy with either). But there is no difference in truth conditions.

It is very much like the choice between He's on a train heading for Washington or He's in a train heading for Washington. The first suggests you think of the train as a kind of covered platform that you get onto; the second suggests you think of the train as a kind of tube that you enter. Which to use is at best a judgment call, and you might even say it is a free choice between unimportantly different alternatives.

The same is sometimes true with verb agreement. It is a judgment call which form to use. There is no automatic rule of syntax that determines which verb form must be selected. Instead, you have discretion, and by what you choose you can subtly suggest which view of the situation you might be taking.

An obvious parallel could be drawn with the difference between The committee is thinking about it and The committee are thinking about it. With the first you encourage a view of the committee as an integrated intelligent entity; with the second, you portray the committee more as an assembly of independent intelligences. Yet surely if the first is true (or false) then the second is too, and for the same reason.

It is a curious fact that American English strongly favors the use of the singular with subject nouns like committee (likewise nouns denoting companies, teams, departments, governments, etc.), while British English clearly prefers the plural. (Just search on Google for sequences like "the government are" or "the government is" and note the typical provenance of the pages. It's only a tendency, it's not absolute; but from casual observation both sides of the Atlantic I find it striking.)

As far as I can see, that means we have to attribute different tendencies of thought to the two speech communities. I know that seems weird. But if it's not a difference between grammatical rules, we must apparently describe Americans as more inclined to see human collectivities as things, and Brits as more inclined to see them as assemblies of independent individuals. (I know, I know, Americans are supposed to be committed to freedom and individuality. Here that position doesn't seem to be well supported by fine-detail grammatical differences.)

There is one other possibility, however: that American copy and newspaper subeditors are more inclined to favor strict agreement based on apparent morphosyntactic properties (whether there is an -s on the end of the subject noun), while British editors are happy to go with the sense; and the cumulative judgments of generations of editors has had some influence on what is now the usual habits of ordinary speakers and writers. Perhaps here copy-editor prescriptivism has started to win. (There is some data to suggest that it has started to win on stipulating the choice of that rather than which in integrated relative clauses.)


  1. John Cowan said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 6:03 am

    For me, at least, the "hottest sixty days of the year" must be consecutive if there is singular agreement, but need not be if there is plural agreement.

    [Ah! John makes a good point. If one stops thinking about the usual situation where the 60 days are, for example, July and August, and starts thinking of some designated 60 nonconsecutive days that one has in mind (all of June and all of September, say, which is not too implausible in Santa Cruz, where August has a strong tendency to be made cloudy and cool by sea fogs), then a truth-conditional difference emerges. I hadn't noticed that. —GKP]

  2. Nik said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 6:43 am

    This is my first post here. Thank you for keeping this blog.

    I study math so I often think of collections as sets which are described such that each element in them meets certain requirements. If I used the singular noun A to call this set, no matter how its elements are related, a set must be treated as an entity and, therefore, inherits and obeys operations it takes and receives. You probably have a reason, though, for requiring un-interruption.

    But if one requires un-interruption, is there anything to forbid him to require also even-number-ness? Or prime-number-ness? Who gets to choose which conditions to use to define this set which we are allow to use singular?

  3. Lance said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 6:53 am

    Geoff—do you have a stylistic preference in the following case?

    [Hey! I didn't expect the Spanish inquisition! —GKP]

    We can't leave the garden unwatered during what {is/are} usually the hottest sixty days of the year, namely July 1st to August 30th.

    My feeling (as a speaker of [some combination of dialects of] American English) is that "are" is required there, even though "July 1st to August 30th" names a consecutive period of days—once the days themselves are named, I can't force the point of view back to a single time period. I think. (Whereas an appositive "namely July and August" forces singular agreement, because naming the time period with reference to months and not days requires a "single period" point of view and prevents an "individual days" point of view; that judgment, I feel sure of.)

  4. Peter said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 8:24 am

    "(There is some data to suggest that it has started to win on stipulating the choice of that rather than which in integrated relative clauses.)"

    My sense, as someone who has lived in both the UK and the USA, is that educated citizens of both countries typically hold very firm views about when to use "that" and when to use "which", and that these very firm views are diametrically opposed to one another.

  5. John Lawler said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 10:24 am

    Similar phenomena occur frequently in tag questions, especially with group nouns like family:

    Your family is still in Slovenia, isn't it?/aren't they?

    Here the officially mismatched number agreement shows up twice, in the tag verb and the tag pronoun, so the effect is intensified, and the judgement more weighty.
    I find the singular in the tag somewhat odd, since it seems to impart attention to the togetherness of the family members in Slovenia, rather than their (individual) presence there.
    On the other hand singular is is fine in the main clause (though I've heard are used with family before). So I have to concur with Geoff — it's a judgement call. Like many, many other things in grammar.

  6. alex boulton said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    Noooobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…

  7. Dan T. said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 11:50 am

    Being "on a train" can perhaps suggest being on top of a moving train car, perhaps engaged in a chase as is common in thriller movies. Being "in a train" is unambiguous about being inside the car.

  8. Karen said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    Interesting that the "what" is not considered here. I know that in existential constructions, with "there", the verb choice is governed by the "true" subject (there is a hot period / there are hot days), and "How could you leave me in what was the worst two days of my life?" sounds wrong, but still the "is" sounds just as good as the "are" in your question.

  9. Robert Coren said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

    While the difference between US and British usage with respect to the number used with "committee", "government", etc. may have originated for one or more of the reasons you suggest, I would guess that they persist now simply because they have become established usage on their respective sides of the Atlantic, and for no other reason. (What's the common practice in Canada, by the way?)

  10. Robert Coren said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

    @DanT.: And yet, the other day while travelling by train from Philadelphia to Boston, I heard countless people tell their cell phones that they were "on the train", although all of them were, in fact, inside the car.

  11. kip said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    To my ears, "We can't leave the garden unwatered during what is usually the hottest sixty days of the year." sounds clearly incorrect. It doesn't sound like a judgement call like the other examples you use (i.e. "the government is/are"). (Born & raised in North Carolina, if that is interesting to you.)

  12. Grep Agni said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

    I have never heard anyone saying "in a train," and it sounds strange to me. I'm fairly sure that English prepositions are governed by rules more arbitrary than usual.

  13. Faldone said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

    It is a curious fact that American English strongly favors the use of the singular with subject nouns like committee (likewise nouns denoting companies, teams, departments, governments, etc.), while British English clearly prefers the plural.

    In my idiolect and, I think, most USn's idiolects, the choice of a singular or plural verb for a sports team depends on the number associated with the noun indicating the team, e.g., "U Conn is expected to do well in the NCAA March Madness this year" as opposed to "The Huskies are expected to do well in the NCAA March Madness this year."

  14. John Lawler said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 12:53 pm

    Preposition use is often a matter of judgement as well.

    Normally on is reserved for conveyances that are not physical containers, like bicycles, rafts, horses, or the bed of trucks; clearly one can't be travelling physically on an airliner, a bus, or a train, and ships are rather iffy as well.

    However, by special dispensation of The Academy, on may be used in English of any scheduled public transport; one is therefore, by fiat, on a train, a bus, a ship, or a plane as an official passenger, regardless of the physical shape of the transportation medium.

  15. Beth said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

    There's also the boring, obvious example of preposition variance: In NYC, you wait on line. Elsewhere in the U.S., you wait in line.

  16. Tim Silverman said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    "Hello darling, yes, this is Jonah. I'm on a whale … "

  17. Jonathan Lundell said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

    I conjecture that the grammatical collective-as-plural form ("the government are" &c) is a relatively recent development in British English. If that's the case, and if Pullum is correct as well, there must have been a change in the British national character or in the habits of their copyeditors, perhaps in the early 20C.

    The sparse evidence for my speculation is some recent reading of latish 19C British political philosophy (Mill, Hare and Droop on voting systems, to be specific). It would take a considerably broader survey to determine whether Pullum or I is (are?) suffering from some converse (inverse?) of the Recency Illusion: that our own manner of speech has antique roots, and our neighbor just got off the boat, linguistically speaking.

  18. rob hollander said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

    Surely Americans sometimes wish to express the individuality of the committee members, and the individuality of team members is very much an issue for some team watchers. If the singular/plural use were free in each speech community, choice of agreement would show what's in the minds of the speakers. But my singular collectives are invariant, so I think Robert Coren guesses right in the case of the American singular collective: it's mere convention.

    However, while it's quite possible that Americans view singular collective nouns as denoting many individuals, and the singularity of the noun is merely grammatical and not 'natural,' convention does not entail an absence of psychological consequences. "Committee" and "team" probably resonate strongly with other singular nouns, including non-collective singular nouns, for Americans and not for Brits. That resonance could influence thought.

    But what about British use? If the plural is not invariant among British speakers, then it may be a preference for perceived accuracy, not convention. It leads to contrasts not found in American speech: "Italy" as a metonymy for the Italian team or Italian government is plural on BBC, but I've never heard their newscasters treat "Italy" as plural when referring to the nation itself. Maybe the national name refers to the place, not the people in it. I can't recall hearing mentions like "the Italian nation," which I would expect to be plural on BBC.

    It would be interesting to know whether and how far grammatical number influences thought. Surely someone has run an experiment comparing extra-grammatical, notional consequences of singular collectives vs plurals in relevant speech communities.

  19. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

    British usage of plural verbs with (what I see as) singular nouns always makes me grammatically queasy. It seems to me that if you can take a noun and change it in some way to make it plural, then the original noun must have been singular.

    Would it sound odd in Great Britain (as it does to me) to say, "Many world parliaments are still young, but the parliament of Great Britain are centuries old." It seems awkward (dare I say wrong?) to have both "parliaments are" and "parliament are" in the same sentence.

    If you accept the above sentence as ungrammatical, it then seems entirely too arbitrary to drop the first half of the sentence and say that "The British parliament is centuries old" is grammatical.

    What do they do in Britain with words like "series," which (in the singular) innately consists of multiple individual items, and (in the plural) consists of multiple series? The verb choice signifies whether one is talking about a single series or a series of series, i.e., the 2008 World Series vs. the last ten World Series.

  20. Tim Silverman said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

    @Andy Hollandbeck: The sentence you suggest: "Many world parliaments are still young, but the parliament of Great Britain are centuries old," sounds ungrammatical to me, but that's (at least partly) because, in order for plural agreement to be correct, the sentence would have to apply to the members of Parliament individually. The members of the Parliament of Great Britain certainly aren't centuries old (not even in the House of Lords, though sometimes one wonders …).
    In addition, it only makes sense to make the noun "Parliament" the subject (even with plural agreement) if the members are acting in their capacity as members of parliament. Thus it would sound odd to me (though not so grossly ungrammatical as your example) to say "The 1997 parliament were unusually young, with a number of new members at the minimum legal age for entry."

  21. Tim Silverman said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

    Also, is there anyone who finds "A lot of people goes to work by bus" preferable to "A lot of people go to work by bus", on the grounds that the subject, "A lot of people" is headed by the singular noun "lot"? What about "A number of people …" (or "A large number of people …")?

  22. Tim Silverman said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

    @Andy Hollandbeck: I guess whether "series" is singular or plural is usually clear from context (as it is in your example&mdash"ten series"). On those rare occasions when it isn't, one can re-word, or explicitly disambiguate with some interjection.

  23. Lance said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

    Tim: I'm not at all convinced that the subject "A lot of people" is headed by the singular noun "lot". "Lot" may head the (singular) subject in "A lot of antique chairs was auctioned off"; but the head of "a lot of people" is "people", preceded by the determiner "a lot of" (or "a lotta").

    (Also, re your earlier comment: Jonah could certainly have been on a whale, if only, as John Lawler said, that whale had been regularly scheduled.)

    A note, too, to John's comment above: I find the singular tag question in Your family is still in Slovenia, isn't it? to be greatly improved when the context makes it sensible to treat the family as a unit, e.g. as a reply to I'm trying to earn enough money to bring my family to this country. Which is pretty much what you'd expect.

  24. Tim Silverman said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

    GKP said:

    we have to attribute different tendencies of thought to the two speech communities

    It is a very interesting question what the relationship is between the linguistics and the psychology of this sort of issue.

    On the one hand, there are various possible ways to think about various common situations, in which the same facts and entities are organised differently, with different relations and emphases, and these ways are potentially available to anyone who thinks about the situations.

    On the other hand, certain linguistic constructions are built on top of particular conceptual interpretations. Since languages and linguistic usage sometimes favour some constructions (and hence their interpretations) over others, it's natural to wonder if there is some psychological correlate of this favoritism.

    (Actually—though I digress for a moment—I'm not sure to what extent all common interpretations of a situation really are "available to anyone who thinks". Philosophical debates often turn on these interpretational issues. Given the strength of disagreement, and the utter incomprension of the opposing party's position, that one sometimes sees in these debates, I'm inclined to wonder if perhaps some quite widely held interpretations are simply not available to some people, and what implications this has, if true.)

    Leaving aside the naïve Whorfian position that the grammar of ones native language forces itself, willy nilly, upon ones conceptual interpretation of every situation, it's still reasonable to wonder if there are cultural biases of interpretation which people learn (solely or primarily) from their native language; and conversely how often the presence, psychologically, of certain interpretations in people's minds flowers into the production of corresponding grammatical forms, and how often it remains unexpressed or implicit.

    Also, to what extent these cultural biases even exist, rather than being overridden by individuals' preferences for particular habits of thought.

    As an example of which I am aware (though I don't have the book to hand just now), John Lucy (in Grammatical Categories and Cognition) describes a comparison of how some speakers of Yucatec Mayan (with no grammatical number, and all nouns being mass nouns) and speakers of English carry out some (visual) classification tasks, in which number of items is one possible means of classification. The Mayans were statistically rather less likely to use number in their classification—which obviously suggests a correlation between language and psychology. But, though Lucy claims this supports his "neo-Whorfian" leanings, the study gives no indication of the true direction of causation.

  25. Tim Silverman said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

    @Lance: to clarify, I too treat "alotta" as a determiner, and I'd guess this is close to universal. However, I have seen constructions in which NPs using "a number of" (or "a large number of") take singular agreement, presumably because "number" is being treated as the head. This always feels quite insane to me (because it appears to imply something semantically crazy, with activities of people being attributed to numbers instead). But obviously it rings some people's bell.

    (The Jonah thing was just a joke. I was, of course, aware that "on" would only really be appropriate with a regularly scheduled whale—"Darling, I'm on the whale" sounds better, due to this fact, and "Darling, I'm on the 10:34 whale to Tarshish. It's not very busy—I seem to be the only passenger" is better still. But I'm afraid I really only said this in the hope of making people laugh, not in order to clarify a point of grammar.)

  26. Nathan Myers said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

    I see a similar ambiguity in the choice of preposition to refer to location in or on an island. In particular, one can vacation "in Hawaii" or "on the Big Island". We have the advantage, in analyzing this, that some islands constitute more than one political unit (e.g. Hispaniola), and groups of islands are part of a common political unit (Japan). In a few cases we have one political unit occupying part of more than one island, which might help or further confuse matters, e.g. Indonesia on or in New Guinea and Timor. (Do any occupy only parts of two or more islands, but no whole islands?)

    I'm used to thinking of "in" referring to a political boundary, and "on" actual geography, but actual use seems more fluid.

  27. Nathan Myers said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

    Tim: Does Air Force One count as regularly scheduled transportation? Would you byline reports filed from there as from "in" or from "on"?

    I would suggest that "on" refers not to the physical conveyance, but rather to the authority of the operator.

  28. Ellen K. said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

    Re in/on a train: Dan T's logic should work for a bus too, but for me, it doesn't. "On a bus", not "in a bus". "In a bus" gives me an image of inside the mechanical workings of the bus, rather than inside the passenger (and driver) area of the bus, which "on a bus" conveys. And if I want to convery on top of a bus I would say or write, well, just that, on top of a bus.

  29. Killer said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 6:27 pm

    George Carlin had the bit where he said, approximately, "Get on the plane? Oh, no — I'm getting IN the plane. Let Evel Knievel get ON the plane."

  30. James Wimberley said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

    Against Rob Hollander's psychological explanation, how about a non-cohesive panicking crowd that runs/run from the bomb blast in all directions?
    For once, there's some merit in French claims of greater clarity for their language. Le gouvernement is necessarily singular even if it's split.

  31. mollymooly said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

    For sports teams with singular names, Australia uses singular verbs as the U.S. does. Presuming the UK and Australia once spoke the same, is this difference because the UK usage is a change that postdates Australia's linguistic independence, or because Australia has subsequently converged with U.S. usage?

  32. Tuliette said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned this already – it might make the American claims of logical superiority more problematic – but this is/are difference does apply to studies. For instance, "Linguistics is awesome" in the States, "Linguistics are awesome" in Britain. Yet here, we're dealing with a conceptually singular identity – a field of study – which is grammatically (if strangely) plural – linguistic studies. So it would seem to be a purely conventional usage.

    As for the original example, "what is the hottest sixty days of the year" does sound dead wrong to my ear.

  33. Faldone said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

    @ Tuliette

    What is a linguistic?

  34. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

    I'm just one person, but I think my intuitions about grammaticality or acceptability may be influenced by the distance between the noun and the verb in question. FWIW, I am West Coast Canadian (although I have one British parent).

    "My family is meeting in Vancouver for Christmas" — totally fine for me, preferable to "my family are"

    "San Jose is in first place in the Pacific Division" — again fine for me, better than "San Jose are"

    "My family, which [who?] will be in Vancouver for Christmas, is crazy" — not quite so acceptable to my ears.

    "My family, who [which?] will be in Vancouver for Christmas, are crazy" — perhaps better, although now that I've been thinking about it for a while, I'm less confident about what my immediate intuitions are.

    "San Jose, currently in first place in the Pacific, is having trouble with its [their?] power play" — not so great for me, although I think I see this type of construction on the sports pages all the time. To me, "are having trouble with their power play" feels better in this case. But I still balk at "San Jose are".

    And when it comes to pronoun-noun agreement, I'm certain I would never say "My family will be in Vancouver; I am bringing presents for it."

    One can't always trust one's own speculations about what drives one's own grammaticality judgments, but it feels like something like the following is happening in my case. When the verb is right next to the noun, form beats content, syntax beats semantics, a singular noun demands a singular verb. But when there is a lot of "space" between the noun and the verb or pronoun, then content beats form, semantics beats syntax, and we go by the physical reality that a group of people, in fact, is a "they", lack of final "s" notwithstanding.

  35. John Burgess said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 12:33 am

    Could I suggest that the use of 'on' rather than 'in' most conveyances is a reminder from the past? For most of history, people did, indeed, ride on them, not in them. Chariots, wagons, boats… the passengers were on top, public or private.

    Over time, vehicles became enclosed and we end up 'in' cars, but still 'on' the bus, train, plane, or boat. And while one can be 'in' an airplane, i.e., the physical cylinder, one still is 'on' it as much of aeronautical terminology originates in nautical terminology.

  36. Chris Lance said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 5:06 am

    The Guardian's style guide stipulates that sports teams are plural, except in the Business section. "Manchester United are currently trailing Chelsea by six points," but "Manchester United is expected to increase its dividend."

  37. Ron Lee said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 6:28 am

    "It is very much like the choice between He's on a train heading for Washington or He's in a train heading for Washington."

    If you can board a conveyance, you can be on board that conveyance, or simply on it. Does that work? If so, I'm on board with ON a train (or plane or bus or ship).

  38. Andrew W said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 7:16 am


    "Linguistics are awesome" sounds completely ungrammatical to my (British) ears.

    The plural/singular alternation does hold for things like "the politics of the situation {is/are} interesting" (can AmE speakers do this?). And I can just about imagine "The linguistics of it {is/?are} interesting", "The mathematics of it {is/?are} interesting" (referring to, say, the analysis of particularly fascinating problems).

    But it doesn't work when referring to these things as subject areas: "Politics/linguistics/mathematics {is/*are} awesome".

  39. Virtual Linguist said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 8:54 am

    It is a curious fact that American English strongly favors the use of the singular with subject nouns like committee (likewise nouns denoting companies, teams, departments, governments, etc.), while British English clearly prefers the plural.

    Some headlines relating to the weekend's rugby matches:
    New Zealand set the benchmark (UK Independent)
    South Africa faces Wales, New Zealand meets France (International Herald Tribune)

    More examples here

  40. jamessal said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 9:05 am

    And while one can be 'in' an airplane, i.e., the physical cylinder, one still is 'on' it as much of aeronautical terminology originates in nautical terminology.

    That's exactly right; the spatial metaphor holds over. I think George Lakoff wrote about this in "Metaphors we Live By."

  41. Chris said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 10:36 am

    Against Rob Hollander's psychological explanation, how about a non-cohesive panicking crowd that runs/run from the bomb blast in all directions?
    This seems (to me) similar to the discussion of "Use both lanes" from a few weeks back. No individual can use both lanes (at once) or run in all directions, but the crowd considered collectively can do so.

    While running is done by individuals, running in all directions is a uniquely group activity; that's how I would justify my preference for the singular verb here.

  42. Huntington said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 10:50 am

    I'm probably drifting even further off topic (not "out of"), but another on/in divide strikes me as a resident of San Francisco. Our interesting topography leads many of our neighborhoods to be include the words "hill", "valley", or "heights". I tend to analyze these names as describing a physical feature, not an artificially defined zone, and so I say (or said, before I moved to the Haight) "I live on Nob Hill", not "I live in Nob Hill". Many other San Franciscans don't do that, and it bugs me. Are you a hobbit, that you live in a hill? This isn't a problem with "heights" because no one says they live "on" Pacific or Bernal Heights, and it's never an issue with Noe or Cole Valley, because "in" is used with both valleys in general and neighborhoods.

    Whew, I feel better. Now let's talk about the north/south split in California when using "the" to describe numbered highways!

  43. Rick S said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

    @GKP: (I know, I know, Americans are supposed to be committed to freedom and individuality. Here that position doesn't seem to be well supported by fine-detail grammatical differences.)

    Another view is that the American focus on individuality has the effect of emphasizing the difference between individual and group behavior, so that groups are more distinctly seen as a separate entity rather than as a collection of individuals. Of course, that's semantic, not grammatical, but it shows that the usage facts aren't necessarily incompatible with the stereotype.

  44. Julia K said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

    My thoughts regarding on/in vehicles: Can you walk around in it? If so, you can probably fall OFF of the platform and need to stay ON it. If you can't walk around in it, you might still fall OUT of the molded compartment of the vehicle and need to stay sitting IN it.
    Don't fall out of the canoe; stay in it. We're IN a canoe headed downriver.
    Don't fall off of the ship; stay on it. We're ON a ship headed for England.
    Don't fall off of the ferry…
    Don't fall out of the car…
    Don't fall off the horse…

    An exception to the walking connection is "Don't fall off the swing; stay on it," which could be because a swing is like a platform even though you're sitting. Note that you are IN a baby swing, which is not like a platform.

    And there are exceptions where the only exit is a small door: "Don't fall OUT of the bus; stay ON it."

  45. Julia K said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

    Hmm yes, use the swing exception for horses too I guess. :P

  46. Nick Z said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 7:31 pm

    @Andy Hollandbeck: the British English (incidentally, I'm assuming that this is British English and not just English English; I've no idea whether e.g. a Scot would say, of a sports team "Scotland are" or "Scotland is") 'singular' noun plus plural verb is, I think, only used of groups of animate entities (as noted by Geoff; I originally thought human beings. But I guess you can say "the herd are"). So 'series' is no problem. Of course, Brits are rather less likely to talk about World Series in particular, whether singular or plural, given its/their oxymoronic restriction to America.

  47. Drew F said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

    This reminds me of the Ken Burns documentary on the American Civil War, where they discuss how the name "The United States," which now is grammatically singular in the US, wasn't always. If you read old documents you'll find plural usage of "United States." The 13th Amendment to the Constitution forbade slavery in the United States or anywhere "subject to their jurisdiction." Apparently, it was after the Civil War that usage began to change, or as one historian put it, "the United States became an 'is'."

  48. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

    @Drew: I've heard people claim that Lincoln's Gettysburg address was a huge catalyst in making the United States (or at least the Union, which was the same thing) a singular entity.

  49. dr pepper said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

    My thought is that words like "lingustics", "politics", "physics", "mathematics", etc, are not plural at all, they are singular words with the suffix "-ics", which has developed an academic connotation. See how natural these words seem:

    Celebritics: analysis of the behavior of famous people.
    Yuppistics: lifestyle consulting for rising wealth.
    Humiliatics: the design of contests for reality shows.

  50. Murugaraj Shanmugam said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 12:18 am

    And we are not talking about what language reference books have to say about using singular/plural verb with collective nouns such as family and committee. The few books that I referred tell me to use singular verb if the noun is seen as a single entity, as in:
    The committee has decided on the issue unanimously.
    The family plans to go to Paris for this vacation.
    But, as they say, use plural verbs when the individual units are referred to, as in:
    The committee were divided on the issue.
    The family were not able to decide on a place for this vacation.

  51. David Marjanović said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 9:26 pm

    For once, there's some merit in French claims of greater clarity for their language. Le gouvernement is necessarily singular even if it's split.

    Not just French. I think English is probably alone within Standard Average European in considering semantics at all. I can tell for sure that German, like French, strictly agrees the verbs with the grammatical number of the nouns. United States? Plural. A number of people? Singular. Linguistics? Singular, but because it's Linguistik without any plural ending or anything that remotely looks like one (like in French and elsewhere). Sports teams? Depends on what their names look like. "[…] what are usually the 60 hottest days […]" — agreement with "days", not with "what". And so on.

    BTW, in German you're in a boat because you sit in it, but on a ship because you imagine you stand on deck, even if you don't, and you don't ride on anything that isn't an animal because there's a separate verb for moving without using one's own power and not flying, so you're in a car, train, bus, whatever; it seems to be common that different languages draw different valid logical conclusions from entirely different premises.

    Actually… wait. I'm pretty sure "a lot" (eine Menge) does take plural agreement in German. But it's almost half past 2 at night, and this expression doesn't occur in my native dialect, so take that with a grain of salt or three. "A heap", which does occur in my dialect, takes singular agreement.

  52. MikeyC said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

    Grep Agni said,

    "I'm fairly sure that English prepositions are governed by rules more arbitrary than usual."

    As with "in London" and "at London"?

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