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June 29th, 2008

"Singular versus plural" quiz explained

by Barbara Wallraff

Here’s my recent “singular versus plural” quiz, annotated with explanations of why what I call right is right and wrong wrong. The correct sentences and their explanations are in boldface type.

-- Not many a sentence in English are as twisty as this one – but is it twisty in a correct or an incorrect way?
“Not many a sentence” is singular, just as “a sentence” is – so the plural verb “are” is wrong.

-- I’ll bet the number of people who wonder about this sentence are going to be sizable.
Though “people who wonder” correctly matches plural subject with plural verb, “the number … are going to be sizable” isn’t right. It’s the number, not the people, that’s sizable, so the verb should be “is.”

-- Correspondingly, there will be a number that wonders about this sentence.
Never mind that “the number” is singular in the previous sentence – as “number” after “the” usually is. “A number” is usually plural, and not without reason. Here the implied people, not some numeral, are doing the wondering.

-- Unfortunately, the rules of grammar aren’t as clear-cut as the rules of arithmetic.
An easy one, no? “The rules … aren’t” is correct.

-- Each person – which is to say, all of us – have our blind spots when it comes to language.
Both the grammar and the punctuation of this sentence are clues that the “which is to say” phrase is irrelevant to the subject of the verb “have.” The main part of the sentence reads “Each person have our …,” which isn’t right.

-- Reasonable people can disagree about some questions of singular versus plural, but I’d like to think the situations illustrated here are straightforward.
Another easy one – what could possibly wrong? In any case, nothing is. This sentence is correct.

-- 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.
Don’t be distracted by the phrases “when a verb should be plural and when it shouldn’t” – the subject of the main verb is “criterion.” This word, from Greek, is singular. The plural is “criteria,” and the sentence should read “The criteria … aren’t … they are.”

-- You probably do know automatically, without even thinking about it, whether the majority of these quiz sentences are correct.
It’s true that “majority” sometimes takes a singular verb, but not here. The word is plural because we’re considering the sentences individually – as in are “all,” “a few,” or “a majority” correct? If we had in mind the majority as one thing, that would be different. For instance, “This is not something that a majority decides; it’s a rule.”

-- So, now that I’ve said that, aren’t I going to be embarrassed if no one gets all the answers right!
This sentence is why I warned you that for the purposes of this quiz, “correctly” means according to standard, idiomatic English. “Aren’t I” is standard and idiomatic. You’d prefer “am I not”? No, no – not only is that stilted but it would be a bit ambiguous in context.

-- Right or wrong, of course, aren’t moral judgments in this case.
“Right or wrong” means one or the other, which makes the subject of this sentence singular – so either “or” should be “and” or “aren’t” should be “isn’t.”

-- Yes, there’s a lot of things to keep in mind!
“A lot” might look singular, but we use it as a plural. “There’s” should be “there are.”

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

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