IN this column last August 8, I described the subject of the sentence “Falling oil prices have hurt the economies of Gulf countries” as both notionally and grammatically plural. That subject is, of course, the noun phrase “falling oil prices,” and I made that observation to explain why the plural present-perfect verb form “have hurt” should be used to ensure subject-verb agreement in that sentence. This is because the subject of that sentence is the whole noun phrase itself, “falling oil prices,” which is both grammatically plural and notionally plural.
A few days ago, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum who goes by the username melvinhate asked me what I meant by “notionally” when I said that the subject of the sentence “Falling oil prices have hurt the economies of Gulf countries” is plural both grammatically and notionally.
I used the word “notionally” in the sense of what the intended meaning of a word or phrase is—the thought that it represents—rather than what appears to be its syntactic function in a sentence. Obviously, the ideal situation in English sentence construction is that there is both notional agreement and grammatical agreement between subject and operative verb. In such cases, it becomes simplicity itself to apply the subject-verb agreement rule—match a singular subject with the singular form of the verb, and match a plural subject with its plural form. This, as I explained at the outset, is clearly the case in the sentence “Falling oil prices have hurt the economies of Gulf countries.”
In English, however, we will encounter many situations when the subject-verb agreement rule cannot be easily and confidently applied because there is a clear conflict between notion and grammar in the sentence we are constructing. A classic example is how to deal with the indefinite pronouns “everybody” and “everyone.” Both are evidently grammatically singular in form, but they are actually notionally plural in the same sense as the plural “all.” So which form of the verb should we choose in these two notion-grammar conflicted sentences: “Everybody (has, have) a good word about him” and “Everyone (has, have) misgivings about her candidacy”?
A strong argument can be made that in the case of “everybody” and “everyone,” notional agreement should take precedence over grammatical agreement, meaning that the plural “have” should be the logical choice in both sentences. What has evolved as the standard usage in English, however, is that verbs in such cases should agree in number with the grammatically singular form of “everybody” and “everyone” and not with their plural meaning: “Everybody has a good word about him.” “Everyone has misgivings about her candidacy.”
There are a number of notion-grammar conflicted usages though where notional agreement prevails over grammatical agreement. For one, although the “the number of” is considered singular in American English, as in “The number of refugees flocking to Europe is now in the tens of thousands,” the phrase “a number of” is considered notionally plural, as in “A number of fruit drinks have run out of stock in that grocery store.” The same thing applies to the phrases “the total” and “a total of”—the first is grammatically singular, as in the sentence “The total is diminishing even as I speak,” but the second is notionally plural, as in the sentence “A total of 246 employees have been laid off in the beleaguered company.”
Finally, we have the case of the pronoun “none.” It is grammatically singular and also notionally singular if it refers to “not one” or to “no part,” as in “None of the applicants interviewed yesterday was hired.” However, “none” is grammatically plural and notionally plural as well if it refers to “not any,” as in “None of the bureaucrats running for public office are expected to pass our club’s integrity check.”
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