Grammar Wednesday

It seems that California Teacher Guy is going for the A grade in class participation! Since I blew it last week (she says with sheepish consternation), I’m going to try to make it up to him here…

My Dear Mrs. Chili,

In her most recent blog post, Pissed Off, who writes from New York City, comments on an incident that happened practically in my backyard:

Sep 14, 9:45 PM (ET)

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) – A teacher and a 14-year-old student were arrested after trading blows during an argument over taking out trash at the desert’s Riverside County Community School.

Teacher Thomas Silva, 61, was arrested and booked for investigation of willful cruelty to a child, while the teenager was arrested for battery on a school employee, Sgt. Mitch Spike said Thursday. Both were released.

“Neither one of their actions were justified,” the sergeant said.

Methinks the good sergeant needs a lesson in grammar from Mrs. Chili!


CTG, you’re absolutely right – the good sergeant DOES need a grammar lesson, and one for which I imagine a lot of people could use a refresher.

The sergeant’s mistake is thinking that “actions” is the subject of the sentence, “neither one of their actions were justified.” In grammatical reality, however, actions is being used as a modifier for neither which is being used as a pronoun here and is the actual subject of the sentence. We can remove the phrase “of their actions” and still have a sentence that makes sense as it was originally intended – neither was justified. Neither what? Neither one of their actions.

The subject of a sentence never comes after an “of” phrase:

That pile of rocks blocks the back door to the garage.

Each of the politicians has an equal chance of winning the election.

None of you has your homework?!

In the first sentence, our subject is the singular pile, not the plural rocks. The same goes for the second sentence – the subject is each which is also singular; we’re talking about this politician and that politician and that politician separately – ANY of them could win singularly.

In the third sentence, the subject is none – and nearly ALL my students think that I’m wrong when I use the singular “has” instead of the plural “have.” It usually brings up the collective noun conversation and I have to explain to my lovelies that yes, they’re a class – a group, a collective noun – but they’re functioning within that group as individuals; each of them is separately responsible for his or her own homework. They’re almost always confused, so I give them these examples:

The chorus practices at 6:30 on Mondays and Wednesdays.

The chorus were given their sheet music last week.

In the first sentence, the chorus is behaving as a collective – they ALL practice together, as a group, on Mondays and Wednesdays at 6:30 – so we can use a singular verb form, practices. In the second sentence, though, the chorus, while still a group, is functioning individually: the tenors get one version of the sheet music, the altos get another version, and the sopranos yet another. In that second sentence, we need a plural verb, were given. If I look out on a sea of glazed eyes, I ask them to change the nouns to pronouns. For the first sentence, they come up with “it” and, for the second, “they.” That helps them to understand which verb form to use.

Now, before my linguist buddies get all up in my stuff, I do have to concede that informal usage allows a plural verb after neither. I discovered this at the site:

As an adjective or pronoun meaning “not either,” neither is usually followed by a singular verb and referred to by a singular personal pronoun: Neither lawyer prepares her own briefs. Neither performs his duties for reward. When neither is followed by a prepositional phrase with a plural object, there has been, ever since the 17th century, a tendency, especially in speech and less formal writing, to use a plural verb and personal pronoun: Neither of the guards were at their stations. In edited writing, however, singular verbs and pronouns are more common in such constructions: Neither of the guards was at his station.

Being that Mrs. Chili (and, it would seem, California Teacher Guy) prefers the more formal, I teach my students to use the singular verb after the pronoun neither.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!



Filed under Grammar

6 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. …an “of” phrase?

    Sounds like Mrs Chili needs a lesson in metalinguistics! Only joshing’.

    This is a pretty clear case; using a verb inflected for a plural subject is wrong here and shows that the Sgt. was misled by the heavy NP, which happens often. But in any case, it’s theoretically interesting.

    It shows what could happen in a period of linguistic evolution – and I don’t mean that in the “language changes therefore everything is valid” sense – in that it is evidently possible for verb inflection to be triggered not by the number (singular or plural) of the syntactic subject, but by the number of the immediately preceding noun.

  2. Usage allows plural “none” as well; in fact “none of you has your homework” sounds strange to me. “none” has been used with a plural verb for as long as it’s been a word, altho use with a singular verb is also common. I’m reminded of this bit from the British show QI, where Stephen Frye insists that you should say “All those batteries are dead; none of them works” instead of “work”.

  3. First of all, I LOVE that you two are my first commenters. I love my linguistics buddies!!

    Jangari, the depth of what I DON’T know about metalinguistics is horrifying, and I’m the FIRST person to admit that. Hell, I’m not even sure I can tell you what “metalinguistics” means! That’s what I have YOU for!!

    John, that’s what I’m SAYIN’! None means “not one.” We DON’T say “not one of them work,” we say “not one of them works.” I don’t say “not one of you have your homework?!” I say “not one of you HAS your homework?!”

    …and I say it a lot more often than I wish I had to….

  4. “none” is defined as “no one; not one; nobody” but it functions differently. While “no one”, “not one” and “nobody” are singular, “none” can be either singular or plural.

    The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:

    the word has been used as both a singular and a plural noun from Old English onward. The plural usage appears in the King James Bible as well as the works of John Dryden and Edmund Burke and is widespread in the works of respectable writers today. Of course, the singular usage is perfectly acceptable. The choice between a singular or plural verb depends on the desired effect. Both options are acceptable in this sentence: None of the conspirators has (or have) been brought to trial. When none is modified by almost, however, it is difficult to avoid treating the word as a plural: Almost none of the officials were (not was) interviewed by the committee. None can only be plural in its use in sentences such as None but his most loyal supporters believe (not believes) his story.

  5. Just got this in on a mailing list this morning:
    One of my uncle’s parents were from there.
    Without going too deep, it appears initially as though the writer did what the Sgt did here; inflect the verb for the thing that precedes the verb, rather than the syntactic subject, or more accurately, the head of the noun phrase that occurs in subject position, which would at first appear to be ‘one’, therefore requiring a singular inflected verb, ‘was’.

    But this case is different. I parse it like this:
    {[one of my uncle]’s parents}
    as opposed to
    {one {of my uncle’s parents]}
    Each is an equally permissible parse of the utterance. The second would leave the head of the noun phrase as ‘one’ and the first has ‘parents’ as the head, with ‘one’ buried in a determiner phrase, or whatever it is. My knowledge of formal syntax needs work.

  6. Oh, my, I am impressed! You’ve given a very thorough answer to a thoroughly perplexing grammar faux pas. Thank you, Mrs. Chili!

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