Thursday, March 13, 2008

But I don't share that notion ...

Kathy Schenck, an ACES colleague, posted a subject-verb agreement quiz at her blog this week (answers here.)

Fellow copy editor Craig Lancaster agreed with her -- except for one sentence:

a thriving population of northern pike keep/keeps carp in check.

Schenck argued for "keeps." Lancaster disagrees, seeing the pike, not the population, as keeping carp in check.

I disagree with Craig and side with Kathy. I don't think the sense here is the individual pike, but the concentration -- a thriving one at that -- of the pike, that is keeping the carp in check. Now, there are times we would still use the plural: "a handful of pike are," and this again illustrates the excitement of wrestling with "notional concord." (Note: Be very careful in quoting Merriam-Webster as the sole source in a language argument. It is decidedly permissive and has its detractors -- make that haters. That's not to say it is not valuable in a usage triangulation, but it should be taken for what it is.)

But then I disagree with Kathy, too.

Earlier this week, on the first day of the Eliot Spitzer debacle, we said, "The couple has three teenage daughters." Couple in this usage is a collective noun, representing two people. "The couple (read they not it) have three teenage daughters."

Now, if the usage pertains to a couple as a single unit, it takes a singular verb. "The winning couple (read it, not they) has one week to pick up the prize."

Well, her example is flawed. Yes, we would probably say "they" have three teenage daughters. But you know what, we also would probably say "they have one week to pick up the prize."

The trailing pronoun in modern idiomatic English is an inconsistent marker on which to make such judgments. (Example: My family is flying in for the holidays. I'm going to make them a turkey. "It" certainly would not work there.)

In this case, I think as good an argument can be made that "the couple has" three teenage daughters. Mom and Dad have them together, not individually.

Reality is, use of "couple" with "it" as the following pronoun is becoming as rare as snow in these parts in July -- maybe even as rare as snow in July in Milwaukee.

That's the beauty -- and quicksand -- of notional agreement (synesis). My notion might not be yours.

Here's an example from a headline in my local paper, The State, this week:

Family did
things their
own way

It's a story about a mother and two sons, one a disbarred lawyer and the other a now-resigned state agriculture official, facing charges in two states related to alleged neglect of horses. But reading the story, it becomes clear these three operated together -- strong mom made the decisions and the others followed. This was a family acting as a unit. So I would contend it is just as -- if not more -- correct to write:

Family did
things its
own way

Now, time for another round at the bar.

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At 3/13/08, 11:01 PM, Anonymous Lancaster said...

Your argument is persuasive, Doug. I appreciate your sharing it here and on my blog.

For what it's worth, I didn't solely cite Merriam-Webster.

At 3/14/08, 1:46 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Poor juxtaposition on my part. I wasn't meaning to suggest you cited only M-W. I was citing it here as the only thing and always put in that "Miranda" warning when doing that.

Sorry for any misunderstanding.


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