Grammar Wednesday

Things, Ones, Bodies, Each, and Every Edition!

I was lacking inspiration for today’s Grammar Wednesday post, so I decided to go to the grammar shelf of my bookcase, pull out a random style guide (I have many, many from which to choose), and write about whatever was on the page that I flipped to by chance.

The section I opened my book to is more about subject/verb agreement (which is more than a little fortuitous, given that this is what I sent my composition students home with on Monday), focusing specifically on irregular subjects like everyone, sometime, anybody, each, and every. So, here comes the lesson:

EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE WORDS – everybody, anybody, nobody, somebody, everyone, someone, no one, anyone, everything, something, anything, nothing – is treated as a SINGULAR subject and, as such, each requires a singular verb. Even if they are surrounded by prepositional phrases that express plurals, their verbs must be singular:

No one has a clue about what to do for the homework.

Something seems wrong since Joe left town.

Everyone wants to have their vote counted, but no one is sure that it does.

Everyone in the group of job applicants has an equal chance at the position.

Each and every function in similar ways, but they have the power to change whatever follows them into a singular idea, even if you’ve got a bunch of ideas. For example:

Each of the students thinks that writing journals are a waste of time.

We’ve got more than one student going on here – they ALL think that writing journals are a waste of time, trust me – but the each tells us that we’re speaking of them individually and not as a group. Therefore, we get to use a singular verb tense.  Drop the each and you’ve got a whole group of kids – the students become the subject of the sentence – and that requires a plural verb.

Every idea I proposed was shot down by the committee.

Again, we’re talking about each idea singularly, so we need a singular verb.

Finally, and in honor of this being a big presidential primary week, let me point out that the word politics is always singular. While on my way home from work on Monday, I heard someone on NPR say something to the effect of “politics have been my primary interest for most of my life” and I cringed. Politics – like mumps, mathematics, news, economics and a bunch of other words that I can’t immediately call to mind – is always singular, just like pants, scissors, and a few others, are always plural.

Happy Wednesday, All! Keep those Grammar Wednesday questions coming!

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. I don’t think this always works, because of notional agreement. “each of” takes a plural verb when it is notionally plural, and a singular verb when it is notionally singular. For instance “Each of his ideas are…”

  2. You know what, Goofy? I disagree. I would still say “Each of his ideas IS…” because EACH tells me that we’re looking at every idea separately. “of his ideas” is a phrase that conveys the notion that there’s more than one of something (ideas being, as it is, plural), but each still tells me that the ideas are being treated individually.

    I would also say “each of the students has the homework that was due today,” (well, I would say that if it were ever true!) and “each of his children plays a mean game of chess.” The verb is always singular because, regardless of how many things we have in the “of” phrase, “each” still conveys singularity and independence.

  3. So for you, they’re notionally singular. Edited prose is evenly split between singular and plural verbs in this constuction.

  4. Goofy, you’re confusing me – who ARE you?

    Because I’m not a “this is set in stone forever and ever” kind of gal (my linguists have done a good job of breaking me of that particular notion – I LOVE my linguists!), I went to see what my many OTHER grammar books had to say on the matter. Now, I recognize that just because something’s written down somewhere doesn’t make it true, but having it written down in a LOT of somewheres makes it – for me, anyway – far more credible. ALL of my style manuals – up to and including Grammar for Dummies – advises that “each” always takes a singular verb.

    SO, to answer your (?) middle statement; yes. For ME, “each” is always singular. I hitch a little when I hear a plural verb used with an “each” construction, and silently correct the speaker (or writer) in my mind…

  5. The thing is that what we find written in usage books is often opinions, not truth. The truth in this case is that usage seems to be evenly split (according to MWDEU, which I linked to in my first post). This fact, combined with the fact that “each of the ideas are” sounds like completely normal English to me, leads me to believe that either the plural or singular verb is grammatical.

  6. Mrs Chili, that’s John, etymologiste extraordinaire. Sorry John if I gave you away, but your url betrays you.

    I’m trying to think of an example where each can agree with a plural verb, but to be honest, I can’t. So I have to agree with Mrs Chili on this one, until some other evidence comes my way, that is.

    However, if those examples came out of your styleguides, then I wouldn’t give much credence to the one that used the example Everyone wants to have their vote counted, but no one is sure that it does. I was going to go on a big rant about what’s wrong with this structure, but it was all going to be wrong. Suffice to say, no one is sure that it will is much more concordant.

  7. I was talking about “each” followed by a phrase introduced by “of”, not “each” by itself. Examples from MWDEU page 377:

    He usually has about eight pupils, each of whom pay about $200 a month
    Each of his ideas are stated
    Each of these texts have been further validated

    These are grammatical for me. Again, in edited prose, this construction shows up with a plural verb half the time. If every single style guide said the plural use was wrong, then I might revisit my opinion on whether it was standard English (not on whether it’s grammatical for me, I’m very sure of that) – but I’d also expect the plural use to be a lot less common than it is. But anyway, not every style guide agrees.

  8. um yeah, I’m John. sorry for the confusion!

  9. I have a question entirely off topic. In this sentence, “Everyone wants to have their vote counted, but no one is sure that it does.” shouldn’t it be “but no one is sure that it IS.” because if you wanted it to agree with the first half of the sentence you’d say “sure that it is counted” not “sure that it does get counted”?

  10. Yes – you’re all right about the structure of that sentence – I made it up on the fly and I wasn’t very careful. Sorry.

    I would change it to “Everyone wants to have their vote counted, but no one is sure that it will.” The “wants” expresses a wish for something in the future, and the “will” is congruent with that. I can’t change it now, though, because then all these good comments won’t make sense, so I’m leaving it up there, embarrassing though it may be….

  11. We were talking a while ago about whether “none” should be plural, and I just learned something I didn’t know before: “none” is derived from the Old English for “not one”, but even in Old English it could be inflected for singular and plural.

  12. Mary

    None is the plural form of nun :-p

  13. John, that’s another one that I often get called out for. I say things like “NONE of you has your homework?!” (actually, I say this a lot) and my students all look at me crosseyed. “None,” I tell them, means “not one” or “no one.” “One,” I go on to explain, is singular; therefore, none takes a singular verb.

    I’m still trying to get around the idea of the “of” phrases with plural verbs. I catch kids all the time when we’re doing s/v agreement exercises with sentences like “The pile of rocks need/needs to be moved to the other side of the yard” or “The group of 75 children and 30 adults is/are going on a field trip to the museum on Thursday.” I was always taught – consistently, all through my education – that anything that happens in an “of” phrase has NO bearing on the verb, because subjects can’t come in an “of” phrase. I learned which verb to use by removing the “of” phrase and finding out what the subject is, then choosing my verb form from there. So, “the pile [of rocks] NEEDS” because “the pile need” is obviously ungrammatical. Same goes with “group.” Take out all those people and we need “is” as the verb.

    That’s how I’m justifying the singular verb with “each.” There may be a million things in the “of” phrase, but we’re still dealing with each of them separately. “Each [of the women] IS oustanding in her field” or “each of the computers crashes whenever the lights are turned on in the lab.”

  14. I just don’t think it makes sense to reason about language like this. Language is systematic, but it isn’t logical. Meaning is not the same as syntax. Whatever “none” means has nothing to do with its morphosyntactic behaviour.

    What happens in the “of phrase” obviously does have a bearing on the verb, as we can see by the fact that the plural verb is often used. This is what happens when we add material between the subject and the verb: morphosyntactic agreement does not always hold. It’s called notional agreement. Notional agreement is why the British say “the government are” instead of “the government is”. It seems to be a normal part of English grammar.

  15. shiketyshaq

    Great site and useful. I will be coming back often to learn and enjoy. Thanks for your work.

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