Tag Archives: conjugation

Kicking ass and taking names is useful sometimes

A colleague was wondering about a construction on the order of “Multiplying the number by 9 and adding the digits together give you a multiple of 9.” Does that sound odd to you? It did to her – she wanted it to be gives, not give. And yet the subject is two things: multiplying … and adding … So shouldn’t it take a plural conjugation, give?

It shouldn’t because it’s one action, multiplying and adding – a compound noun phrase that is nonetheless a single entity because it is a single complex action rather than two separate actions. If it’s two different possible actions – i.e., you can multiply or you can add with equal effect – then it’s plural. Parallel examples:

Kicking ass and taking names is my favourite Saturday evening pastime.

Kissing ass and taking bribes are both ways of getting ahead in business.

It’s similar to how we can say “The hop, step, and jump is the silliest track event,” not “are.”

When in doubt, though, or concerned that some readers may prefer singular while others prefer plural, you can always avoid the issue by using an auxiliary (or, as possible, a past tense), which conjugates the same either way:

Multiplying the number by 9 and adding the digits together will give you a multiple of 9.

100% of these usages is wrong

I have just seen an infographic (heaven help us, yes, an infographic – generally now not actual charts but just text tarted up) with the following statements:

46% of all U.S. workers claims that they are less productive without coffee.

61% of the workers who need coffee to get through their day drinks 2 cups or more each day.

49% admits to needing coffee while on the job in the Northeast where the workday coffee ritual is the strongest.

Let’s ignore all the other issues in those sentences and just focus on the most egregious, unnatural usages: 49% of workers claims; 61% of the workers drinks; 49% admits. Ick. Just ick.

This is a classic overthink error. I see it mainly in newspapers and similar places where the writers are trying to enforce their understanding of “proper” grammar and are going against their normal speech instincts in doing so.

Percentages can apply to unitary or mass entities and they can apply to populations of entities. When you’re talking about mass or unitary entities, it’s right to use the singular: “50% of this cake is chocolate”; “50% of this collection is action figures.” Moreover, when you’re talking about average (or consistent) percentage of each individual in a set, you may use the singular, though it can sometimes be awkward to phrase it thus: “40% of her cupcakes is sugar.”

But when you’re talking about the portion of the individuals in a set of individual entities, percents are plural quantifiers. You don’t say “46% of the people here drinks coffee” unless somehow each employee has a body 46% of which (perhaps on average) drinks coffee and the other 54% of which abstains. Would you say “Half of the employees here drinks coffee”? How about “A lot of the people here drinks coffee”? Hey, a lot is singular, you know!

Which is just the point. A lot may be singular, and 46% may be a discrete quantity, but their effect on the nouns they describe is a plural quantification. Remember that a dozen is also a singular construction and a discrete quantity, and a hundred likewise, and yet you don’t invariably conjugate verbs in the singular after them: “A dozen people is coming over”? No. (But you can say “A dozen eggs sits in the basket” because you know that’s a carton.) You can say “A bunch of flowers sits by the window” because in that case a bunch is a unitary object; if you say “A bunch of people sit by the window” it means that the people may or may not be together as a unit, but there are a fair few of them in any event. (And “A bunch of people sits by the window” is an almost amusing image of a set of people so together in their grouping that they even sit as a single unit.)

It’s easy enough to see how people can get confused. Many of these things can take singular or plural depending on what are sometimes very fine nuances of meaning. I can say “100% of these usages is wrong” and mean that each usage is 100% wrong, and I can say “100% of these usages are wrong” and mean that every last one of them is wrong. But there are cases where your ear just screams: “46% of workers claims”?! No. Just no. A percentage of a population of individuals is a plural.

And really, if your analysis of grammar leads you to write something that sounds staggeringly wrong, stop and reconsider your analysis.

It is not I, it’s me

There’s an old joke: St. Peter hears a knock at the Pearly Gates. He says, “Who goes there?” A voice replies, “It is I.” St. Peter says, “Go away! We don’t need any more English teachers.”

For who other than a hard-core grammatical prescriptivist would say “It is I?” And would even the driest English teacher (not that that many are that dry anymore), arriving with others (I was about to type “friends,” but it’s hard to think that such a person could have any left), say “It is we”? Or, on the other side, answering the door, say “It is they”? I have seen “It is he,” it’s true, but…

But no one in normal English speaks that way. Not even the well-respected, highly educated people. So we’re all wrong, then? What’s with this, anyway?

This “rule” is obviously not organic to English, since it seems so awkward to pretty much every native English speaker (except the ones who have had “It is I” drummed into them and so accept it – a linguistic perversion that can be accomplished with any irregular usage if you can get people to think it’s more formal, polite, and correct, since English is capricious that way; see An historic(al) usage trend: a historical usage trend (part 1)). The idea behind it is that the is there is a copula: it equates two things. A=B. Identity means identity, so both must be the subjects: “I am he.” (If you recognize that as the first three words of “I Am the Walrus,” remember that the next four are “as you are me.” It’s not a grammar lesson from The Beatles.)

There are some problems with this reasoning. First of all, when you draw up the rules for a language, it helps if they actually describe what the language actually does, as opposed to enforcing practices that are quite different from what established usage is. If you get an idea about language and make a theory and it turns out not to be an accurate description, you shouldn’t bend the subject, you should change the theory. Otherwise you have linguistic phlogiston, a mumpsimus. And something unfortunately all too common.

Second, language is not math. Or, more precisely (since one may construct a mathematical language), English is not math. Why this isn’t incredibly obvious I don’t even know. Try performing a mathematical operation on a sentence. Give me the square root of “To be or not to be.” Language is waaaaay less tidy than math, but it’s a lot of fun. You don’t get to derive new equations and results, but linguists are discovering a lot of really fascinating weirdness. Grammatical prescriptivists, on the other hand, if they applied their thinking to the realm of math, would insist on only using certain equations in certain ways and would argue that some solutions are unacceptable because they involved, for instance, irrational numbers. They would be like the lawmakers who legislated the value of pi to be exactly 3.

And incidentally, even in math, if you establish that in this instance of an equation a=3 and b=3, you don’t necessarily change all b to a. But anyway, syntax is sequence and form; identity is semantics. Two different areas of grammar.

Third, English is not Latin. Many of prescriptivists’ ideas, such as this one, are derived from and/or supported by appeals to Latin grammar. You might as well use a barbecue to bake a cake, or dress patterns to make shoes. Each language has its own set of rules, its own parameters, its own ways of handling this and that. French is descended from Latin but you could never say “C’est je” in French, so why would we insist that English use “It is I” just because Latin, which English is not based on, does similarly?

The real ace in all of this is that “It is I” is supposedly equating “It” and “I”. OK, what’s the “It” here? If I say “I am he,” then there’s a “he” we were talking about who turns out to be me. But where’s this “it”? There’s no object I’m claiming is me. The it is actually empty. The only reason it’s there is because in English we require every finite verb to have something in the subject position. Not every language does. In Chinese you can say you shu, “have book”, to mean “There’s a book”; you can say shi wo, “is I/me”, to mean “It’s me” (or “It is I” if you’re one of those people). But we have to put in these empty its and theres in English for it to be a complete sentence. (We may say, casually, Got it, but even casually we don’t say Is me instead of It’s me.)

So it’s is really an existential predicate. But it’s bootless to argue that since there’s only one real thing there (me), it must be the subject. The point is precisely that it’s not the subject because that’s not how English syntax works. A thing can’t be both subject and predicate. We can’t say I am to mean It’s me, because it means something else, so we have an existential verb and an empty subject, and make me the predicate.

Which leads us to another fact of English syntax: the case filter. Put simply, English nouns and pronouns are by default in the objective (accusative). For each finite (conjugated) verb, there has to be one subject, which means one noun phrase in the subject (nominative) case, and that noun phrase is the one that is specifying the verb – it’s in the “subject” position. We don’t do this with non-finite verbs: I want him to go, I want to see him going. Those hims are the subjects of an infinitive and a participle, but they’re still objective. But if the verb is finite, one noun phrase and one only is treated as its subject: I desire that he go. The one you want is him. (Note that there can be inversions: What fools are we! Sam I am!)

And that is a real rule of English. One that we all use all the time without having someone tell us, one that guides our comprehension and usage. Not phlogiston. There is no cake batter dripping from the grill. So if someone at your door says “It is I,” you’re fully enfranchised to say “Go to hell!” (You probably don’t want them at your party anyway.)

A variety of ways of using a variety

A colleague asked, “What verb would you use with ‘a variety of terms…’: is or are?”

The answer is that if you’re referring to what the various terms are doing, it’s are; if you’re referring to the variety qua variety, it’s is. Probably you want are:

A variety of terms are used. (Meaning several diverse terms are used.)

A variety of terms is used. (Meaning a specific variety is used – e.g., they’re all vulgar.)

A variety of flowers were on the table. (Assorted flowers were on the table.)

A variety of flowers was on the table. (One specific variety was on the table – presumably I don’t know what it’s called, or I would have said so.)

Generally, you’ll use the is when discussing the variety more in the abstract:

The board was discussing what herbaceous emblem to use for the society. A variety of flowers was on the table, as was a variety of grass, as well as the larch.

But very often a variety of is used as an indefinite plural quantifier, and so takes the plural, just like a lot in A lot of people are coming and a bunch in There are a bunch of questions I want to ask (as opposed to discrete singular entities, as in A lot of land was the subject of the dispute and There is a bunch of flowers on the table).

Are this sentence’s needs being met?

A colleague just asked about a sentence similar to the following:

Provided that each member of the faculty club’s basic needs is met along with a comfortable free wine allotment, each professor will remain suitably compliant to expectations.

He question was whether it should be is met or are met; she was leaning towards is because it’s each member.

How do you sort out questions of conjugation? Find the head of the noun phrase that’s the subject of the sentence. What’s the head noun here? Is it member? Only if the faculty club’s basic needs is what it’s a member of. But I rather suspect that it’s actually talking about the basic needs of each member of the human family – in other words, the ‘s on club’s actually applies to the whole phrase each member of the faculty club… which makes that phrase a modifier of needs. And so “needs” is the head noun, the one that the verb conjugates to. (Anything that has a possessive, and anything that is the complement of a preposition – e.g., of the faculty club – is a modifier.)

The skeleton is in fact Provided that … needs … are met …, each … will remain … compliant. The rest is modifiers. And yes, it’s are: it’s the needs that are being met, not each member that is being met.