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June 11th, 2008

"Singular versus plural" quiz

by Barbara Wallraff

David Griggs-Janower, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “You recently wrote, ‘More than one in five North American adults is functionally illiterate.’ ‘Is’ requires a singular subject. ‘More than one’ is not singular -- by definition. I think it should be ‘More than one ... are.’”

Dear David: What you say makes perfect sense -- but alas, it’s not the standard way of looking at “more than one.” According to nearly all language authorities, the phrase is grammatically singular, and never mind what it means. In this respect, it’s a lot like the word “everyone,” which is singular even though it refers to multiple people: “Everyone has (not the plural ‘have’) trouble with singulars and plurals sometimes.”
Speaking of everyone: Everyone -- or at least a huge number of readers -- seemed to get a kick out of the quiz I published several weeks ago. I was amazed. I mean, who actually enjoys pop quizzes? Well, if you’re reading this, maybe you do. So let’s have another quiz, this time on the topic of singular versus plural.
This quiz, like the previous one, is also a contest: I’ll give a signed copy of my book “Word Court” to one reader, chosen at random, who sends me -- on my Web site or by mail -- the correct answers within a week of the publication date of this column. To enter the contest, just tell me the first letter of each sentence below in which the number of all the verbs is correctly matched with the number of their subjects. By “correctly,” I mean according to standard, idiomatic English.

-- Not many a sentence in English are as twisty as this one -- but is it twisty in a correct or an incorrect way?
-- I’ll bet the number of people who wonder about this sentence are going to be sizable.
-- Correspondingly, there will be a number that wonders about this sentence.
-- Unfortunately, the rules of grammar aren’t as clear-cut as the rules of arithmetic.
-- Each person -- which is to say, all of us -- have our blind spots when it comes to language.
-- Reasonable people can disagree about some questions of singular versus plural, but I’d like to think the situations illustrated here are straightforward.
-- The criterion for when a verb should be plural and when it shouldn’t aren’t really something to memorize -- they are more like word patterns, most of which we already know.
-- You probably do know automatically, without even thinking about it, whether the majority of these quiz sentences are correct.
-- So, now that I’ve said that, aren’t I going to be embarrassed if no one gets all the answers right!
-- Right or wrong, of course, aren’t moral judgments in this case.
-- Yes, there’s a lot of things to keep in mind!

This is a tough quiz. I can’t wait to see whether you get all the answers right -- I hope you do! Again, to enter the contest, just send me the first letter of each correct sentence. I’ll publish the answers in a few weeks.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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