Grammar Wednesday

Mrs. Chili is stumped on this one, kids. Help a girl out.

I was driving to work yesterday listening, as is my habit, to NPR. My local station’s anchor was reporting on our gray and yucky weather pattern and she said something very much like this (I’m going from memory as I don’t take notes while I’m driving):

We’ve got some more rain in the forecast through this evening; one to three inches of rain is expected by nightfall.

I walked into the college and headed straight for the Goddess of the Front Desk. She’s my go-to girl for things like this; she and I share a love of our language and she revels in geeky research projects (she loved me for sending her off on a quest to settle a metonymy vs. synechdoche question last week). I relayed the weather quote and she looked at me a little blankly.

“In that sentence,” I explained, “INCHES is the subject. The subject of a sentence can’t come after the word ‘of,’ right? So if ‘inches’ is the subject, shouldn’t the verb be plural? Shouldn’t the sentence read one to three inches of rain ARE expected?”

We couldn’t come up with the answer. One to three inches IS sounds right, but that’s probably because we’re so used to hearing “rain” (or, just as likely, “snow“)  – a singular noun (or, rather, a non-count noun with singular properties) as the last word before the verb.

We tried it with other quantities – four gallons of milk and five pounds of chocolate – and decided that the plural verb sounded better in those cases – four gallons of milk are required for the commercial bakery class this morning and five pounds of chocolate are being delivered this afternoon, right to my door (I wish!) – but the singular verb still sounded better with the rain and snow, despite our mutual agreement that, grammatically, the plural verb is required.

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23 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. OK, for somebody you seem to regard as a pretty good writer, things like this make me realize that I am woefully inept when it comes to grammar.

    In this case, my question is why are”inches” the subject of the NPR anchor’s sentence? I would’ve thought “rain” was the subject, with “inches” merely providing a description of the amount of rain, in which case the verb would be singular.

    Right?

  2. Maybe “one to three inches of rain” is treated like a collective noun here. I honestly don’t know, but it does sound better to say “is” than “are” in this case.
    It also sounds better to say “I paid less than $40 for that shirt.”, when technically, shouldn’t it be “fewer”?
    This could also be a case of “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive” grammar.
    This chump is definitely stumped.

  3. Falcon, it’s accepted that the subject of a sentence never comes after the preposition “of.” If I were to say “the castle of sand was ruined by the waves,” is the subject of the sentence ‘castle’ or ‘sand’? How about “pile of rocks”? See where I’m going with this? It’s true that one can take the ‘of’ phrase right out of the sentence and it will still, mostly, make sense (‘the castle was ruined by the waves.’ It makes MORE sense when we know that the castle is made of sand rather than of sturdier stuff, but the sentence still works without the qualifier). Because “of rain” isn’t the subject of the sentence, the only other noun we have to work with is “inches,” which is most certainly plural.

    Mrs. T, you’ve got a good idea – it could well be that it’s treated as a collective, but I’m not entirely sure that we’re technically correct about that.

    You’re right that it is grammatically correct to say that you paid fewer than $40 for the shirt. “Dollars,” isn’t a non-count noun and, as such, is quantifiable (obviously, as we’ve got fewer than 40 of them in the sentence). You paid less MONEY, but fewer DOLLARS.

    I’m certain that it is a descriptive/prescriptive thing. I’m waiting for my linguist buddies to chime in… Gentlemen?

  4. I guess I’m still stuck on what’s describing and what’s being described, though I’m perfectly willing to admit that I have no clue whether or not that makes a difference in this scenario.

    Again, rain is what’s being described, and inches are being used to describe it. In your “castle of sand” example, the castle is being described, and sand is being used to describe it. So, even though rain, inches, castle, and sand are all nouns, I’m hearing / reading rain and castle as being the subjects because they are what are being described in their respective sentences.

    Am I even close to being legitimate here?

  5. Not being one in tune with teh grammars, my first thought was also that inches of rain is a collective similar to peaches and cream.

    Now I am hungry.

  6. Proximity: “If a subject is widely separated from its verb by intervening modifiers, and if the intervening material differs in number from the subject, it is quite likely in speech that proximity (or attraction) will govern, and agreement between subject and verb will be notional rather than grammatical: Everything I’ve heard about their appeals and interventions suggest that they’re going to delay us. Edited English does not permit this sort of lapse, although the lower levels of speech and Informal writing often overlook it.”

    http://www.bartleby.com/68/48/248.html

    (Note that “lower levels” doesn’t mean “inferior”, it means “less formal”.)

    “Proximity (attraction), notional agreement, and logic conspire here to make the verb choice plural: A number of us are going to attend. A flock of starlings were making loud conversation. But at Conversational levels the doubts of the speaker and in Edited English the stylebook’s unwavering rule that subjects and verbs must agree in number can sometimes produce the singular: A pair of hits in the bottom of the ninth usually turns the trick. Either singular or plural is Standard in such constructions, although the plural usually seems more natural and comfortable.”
    http://www.bartleby.com/68/46/246.html

    In other words, “rain” makes the verb singular because it is closer to the verb than “inches”. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English calls this standard.

    imo if it sounds right in casual speech, then it’s probably grammatical in casual speech.

  7. There’s nothing wrong with “less dollars”. “less” has been used with count nouns for a thousand years. Many usage books say that “less” is ok with count nouns of time, money and distance.

  8. I tested this sentence by taking rain out of the phrase. “1-3 inches is expected tonight” vs. “1-3 inches are expected tonight” and I think the plural wins hands down.

    Now all I want to do is re-write the whole sentence as dirty “1-3 inches of throbbing man meat are expected tonight”.

    Um, no, no they aren’t.

  9. The proximity of “rain” to the verb influences the choice of singular. This is standard in spoken English.

    http://www.bartleby.com/68/46/246.html
    http://www.bartleby.com/68/48/248.html

  10. Kizz, if you’re disappointed that you’re not expecting only 1 – 3 inches of throbbing man-meat tonight, then it HAS been a while for you, hasn’t it?

    OK, I’m sorry, but Kizz started it! 🙂

  11. rtyuiop

    Hi Mrs Chili,

    As a linguistics (masters) student and long time reader first time commenter, I might be able to shed some light on this – we would say the subject is actually the NP (Noun Phrase) ‘one to three inches of rain’ – and that phrase isn’t necessarily plural, as we can tell from all us native speakers being happy with ‘is’ agreeing with it.

    Plurality is a syntactic property, not necessarily solely to do with numbers of things – we say ‘mouse-trap’ even though we hope it will catch many mice, for instance.

    Cheers,

    Danny

  12. Thanks, Goofy – I know I can always count on you to put this stuff to rights. So, what you’re saying is that it’s okay in CASUAL speech, but for more formal situations, the plural verb should be used?

    Kizz, Honey, if you’re only expecting one to three inches, you really ought to start setting your standards a little higher.

    Danny, WELCOME! You’re confirming what Goofy (and Mrs. T) said about the whole phrase being treated as a single entity, right? Do you agree with me, though, that in formal writing, the plural verb should be used?

    Oh, and while I totally see your point, don’t mouse traps usually catch only one mouse at a time? ; P

  13. So, what you’re saying is that it’s okay in CASUAL speech, but for more formal situations, the plural verb should be used?

    Many usage books say that if the verb is influenced by the proximity principle.

    However, I’m not sure anymore if the proximity principle is involved in this example. My favourite usage book, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (page 56), treats amounts of money and periods of time as a single unit, like Danny does. In other words, the proximity principle is not involved.

  14. hmm, that was confusing.

    In short, I’ve changed my opinion: it’s not proximity that’s acting on the verb. Instead, the phrase “one to three inches of rain” is viewed as a singular unit. Other examples:

    Ten dollars is all I have left.
    Two miles is as far as they can walk.
    Two thirds of the area is under water.

  15. Interesting discussion. Since I’m not a native speaker, I don’t know what’s more correct from a grammatical point of view. I only know that the plural makes more sense to me.

  16. rtyuiop

    Actually the plural verb sounds completely wrong to me! I’m Australian, so maybe it’s different in acceptability between Aus and American English, not sure.

    And while mouse-traps may only trap one mouse at a time… How do you feel about “He had been a duck-hunter for 30 years”? Are we talking about a feathers and bills equivalent to Captain Ahab 😀 ?

    Danny

  17. I’ve been mulling it over now for a few days – since I heard the weather report – and I’ve decided (for ME) that the plural verb DOES work. I’m perfectly okay with the idea that there are reasons why the singular is acceptable, but the fact that the phrase caught me up short is enough to convince me that I need to use the plural verb.

    Danny, the idea of a duck-hunting Captain Ahab is HYSTERICAL! Just call me Ishmael….

  18. Organic Mama

    The plural is the only one that makes sense to me in this context, particularly since this was spoken on National Public Radio, which in my view should never be so informal as to promote such casual usage.

    If I’d heard it while I was driving, I might be inclined to yell at my radio.

  19. Do you think it might have something to do with this…

    One inch of rain is expected…
    Two to three inches of rain are expected…
    One to three inches of rain is expected…

    You know what used to mess up my non-native speaker friend, Charmaine? Expressions like “three day trip” or “seven hour flight.” She’d always said “Seven hours flight.” And I’d tell her she was wrong but could not, for the life of me, explain why…

  20. fermat

    Change the sentence around a bit: There ___ one to three inches of rain expected by nightfall.

    Most of us would use “is” in the above sentence. The subject is “rain” and “one to three inches of” just modifies the collective noun. I think this is the reason a singular verb is needed.

  21. Love the blog. I especially like the reference to the girl at the front desk. I don’t even pretend that I run my school. My secretary and bookkeeper have all the answers I need. My father told me when I became a teacher that secretaries, custodians, and lunchroom ladies are the three groups you must make friends with.

  22. fermat

    To further clarify: Rain is the subject because you would say, “Rain is expected tonight,” not “inches are expected tonight.” Unless you mean something else entirely. 🙂

  23. Wow, should have chimed in earlier.

    I have to side with the Australian linguistics masters student here; you really have to look at the constituency of the sentence rather than individual words. That is, the entire NP acts as the syntactic subject. There are other good examples of this sort of thing, and since they don’t apply to subject-verb agreement, they’re a good test case:

    A strong cup of coffee

    The cup isn’t necessarily strong, the coffee is. In terms of a syntactic tree, the phrase ‘cup of coffee’ would still be analysed as:
    [NP cup [PP of [NP coffee]]]
    but surely it’s a type of coffee, not a type of cup.

    I also agree with Goofy that units of measurement are pretty much across the board taken to be singular, as they generally denote a continuous chunk of time/space/etc:

    Ten minutes is all I need
    A mere 20 kilometres separates us
    35 degrees Celsius is a bit too hot

    Also, bear in mind that the English verb inflection /-s/ may permissibly be analysed as denoting not singular, but unmarkedness for number.

    This is a cross-linguistically common phenomenon. The Wagiman verb paradigm has a very grammatically strict number system, as each person prefix has a different form for singular and plural. However, the third person singular prefix forms are used with subjects that must be plural from context, but which aren’t explicitly stated as such. For instance:

    lamarra-giwu-yi nganba-jewo-n
    dog-plural-subj they.do.to.me-chase-pres
    “The dogs are chasing me”

    but:

    ngan-badi-na, gayh-gorden lamarra-yi
    it.does.to.me-bite-past that-many dog-subj
    “(they) bit me, those dogs”

    That is, the singular form of the verb is used for singular subjects, but also subjects whose number is perhaps not so important, even if known.

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