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Grammar by the numbers

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The question came up the other day in a Monitor article from the Middle East: "A poll shows that a third of Palestinians want to leave because of violence and economic woes."

"Shouldn't 'a third' take a singular verb, 'wants'?" an editor asked. After a flurry of instant messages, the decision was no. The plural verb remained: "A third ... want."

Welcome to the world of "notional agreement." This is a somewhat controversial concept that copy editor Bill Walsh of The Washington Post has promoted of late.

The idea is that meaning can trump form. In this case, although "a third" is a singular noun, it refers to a group of people definitely plural in number and so takes a plural verb.

This sentence follows a pattern: "half of all incoming freshmen," "most of the Senate," "some of my closest friends," and so on. In this pattern, the object of the preposition – what comes after "of" – is critical.

"The Palestinians" may be "a people," but for polling purposes they are a group of individuals whose individual views were presumably the whole point of the poll.

Mr. Walsh is onto something with "notional agreement," but it's a principle to be invoked sparingly. I'd try to reach a decision on some other basis first.

Another "number" issue that comes up is how to think of an organization, especially a business. Is this an "it" or a "they"?

"At the Smith Company, they do things right." Well, OK, in an advertising slogan. But if it's part of some standard expository prose, a nit-picking copy editor may ask, "What's the antecedent for the pronoun 'they'?" Or to translate into ordinary English, "Who are 'they' supposed to be?"

"They" are presumably the people who work there. Isn't that understood? Arguably. But good writing avoids making the reader fill in little gaps like that.

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