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Author Topic: The subject-verb agreement conundrum flares up again – Parts 1 and 2  (Read 248 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: January 19, 2017, 11:30:50 AM »

Part 1:

As we all know, the basic grammar rule in English is that the operative verb of a sentence should always agree with its subject in number. When the subject or doer of the action is singular, the verb takes the singular form; conversely, when that subject or doer is plural, the verb takes the plural form.


In practice, though, this rule gets difficult to apply when the subject or doer isn’t a simple, clear-cut noun like “petrol” but a noun phrase like, say, “five gallons of petrol.” For instance, in the sentence “Five gallons of petrol (is, are) not enough to get you to Sydney,” we couldn’t be too sure if the verb should take the singular form for the singular mass-noun “petrol” or the plural form for the measure “five gallons.”

Over the years, in this column and lately also in Jose Carillo’s English Forum, my position has always been that noun phrases like “five gallons of petrol” are grammatically and notionally singular because their true subject is the singular mass noun and not its plural-form measure. In the case of “five gallons of petrol,” however, this grammar prescription is admittedly hard to swallow because of the strong preeminence of the plural measure “five gallons.” Indeed, it’s conceptually much easier to grasp the singular character of such noun phrases as “five meters of cloth,” “five kilos of rice,” and “over 20 years of teaching.”

Last January, my choice of the singular verb form for such noun phrases was bolstered when Manila Times editor in chief Rene Bas cited this much more succinct grammar rule: “A noun-phrase subject naming a unit of measurement, currency, length of time, etc., calls for a singular verb because no matter the quantity, amount, length of time, number of units, etc., the sense is that of a totality, a whole. Therefore: ‘five meters of rope was needed,’ ‘ten pesos is the selling price,’ ‘40 minutes is too long for a speech,’ and ‘30 pieces of silver was Judas’ bribe.’”

Even the usual detractors of my position in the “petrol” subject-verb agreement conundrum welcomed this explanation, so there has been a pleasant respite in the debates on this grammar issue. But last May 6, Glensky, a new member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, caused the debate to flare up again when he cited this rule for noun phrases consisting of a mass noun and quantifier: “When the mass noun has its own quantifier, the subject can take either a singular or plural verb, depending on the number of the subject as indicated by the quantifier.”

Glensky gave the following illustrative examples: “Five bottles of water are enough to quench our thirst.” “One bottle of water is enough to quench our thirst.” “Those many gallons of petrol are not sufficient to fuel my car.” “One gallon of petrol is not sufficient to fuel my car.”

He explained that in the first example, the real subject is “five bottles” and “of water” is just an adjectival modifier. In the sentence using “those many gallons of petrol,” he said, “many gallons” is the real subject and “of petrol” is only a modifier. He also observed that the modifier “those” emphasizes the “individuality” of each gallon of the petrol. Because of this, he says, “the more that the verb form should be plural.”

After closely examining Glensky’s arguments, I came to the conclusion that whether the verb in such cases should be singular or plural would actually depend on the speaker’s point of view. But as soon as I declared this change in my position, a Forum member told me pointblank: “Your explanation flies in the face of your earlier contention that ‘many years of study’ is singular. You can’t have it both ways.”

In my next column, I’ll explain in detail why we can, in fact, have it both ways.

Part 2:

In last week’s column, I discussed the following prescription for determining the number—whether singular or plural—of noun phrases consisting of a mass noun and quantifier: “When the mass noun has its own quantifier, the subject can take either a singular or plural verb, depending on the number of the subject as indicated by the quantifier.”

This prescription was cited by Glensky, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, and I found his explanation for it grammatically airtight. Indeed, after giving the matter a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that whether the verb in such sentences should be singular or plural actually would actually depend on the speaker’s point of view. But an Australian member of the Forum dismissed this conclusion of mine with this remark: “Your explanation flies in the face of your earlier contention that ‘many years of study’ is singular. You can’t have it both ways.”


The noun phrase referred to is one I used last year in this lead sentence of a promotional writeup for my book Give Your English the Winning Edge: “Many people discover to their dismay that their many years of formal study of English has not given them the proficiency level demanded by the job market, by the various professions, or by higher academic studies.” My use of the singular “has not given” for “their many years of formal study in English” was declared wrong by a noted language professor in the Philippines, who pointed out that the verb should be the plural “have not given” instead because, he argued, that verb actually refers to the plural “many years,” not to the singular “formal study of English” in that noun phrase. 

I defended my use of the singular verb form for that entire noun phrase, explaining that it’s an abstract notion that could only be singular. I based my justification on this well-established grammar rule: Time periods for an activity that’s notionally singular are grammatically singular, as in “Fifty hours of sleeping is excessive.” (Even if we knock off the gerund “sleeping” in that sentence, the time period stays notionally and grammatically singular: “Fifty hours is excessive.”) The Australian member of the Forum whom I earlier referred to disagreed. He insisted that the verb should take the plural form instead, but he eventually accepted my position after a long, protracted discussion.

Now he is taking issue with me again. He adamantly disagrees with my conclusion that in sentences like this one of his, “Five gallons of petrol (is, are) not enough to get you to Sydney,” the verb could either be singular or plural depending on the speaker’s or the writer’spoint of view. “You can’t have it both ways,” he insists.

Basically, here’s how I arrived at my conclusion: If the petrol comes in five separate, distinct gallon containers, it would make sense and it would be notionally correct to think of the subject of the sentence above as the plural “five gallons,” which, of course, would need the plural verb form “are”: “Those five gallons of petrol are not enough to get you to Sydney.”

But the grammar situation would be different if the speaker is looking at a large container containing 5 gallons of petrol, and he estimates that it won’t be enough for his car to reach Sydney. In his mind, he looks at the petrol in terms of its total quantity in that container. Grammatically and notionally, therefore, it makes perfect sense for him to use the plural-form verb “is” in that sentence: “Five gallons of petrol is not enough to get you to Sydney.”

This is why I am convinced that, at least in the particular case of “petrol” and similar physically measurable finite nouns, the verb for mass nouns with quantifiers could indeed be singular or plural depending on the speaker’s point of view. (May 15 and 22, 2010)

These two essays, 690th and 691st in the series, first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its May 15 and 22, 2010 issue © 2010 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.
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