January 27, 2005

Agreement with nearest always bad?

In "Everything is correct" versus "Nothing is relevant", Geoff Pullum takes on the claim that if sentences like the following occur (and they do), then they're part of the language, and it's contradictory for those who who style themselves as descriptive linguists to say otherwise (as Geoff did in an earlier posting):

(1) Why do some teachers, parents and religious leaders feel that celebrating their religious observances in home and church are inadequate and deem it necessary to bring those practices into the public schools?

I agree with Geoff that it's very likely that (1) should be dismissed as an example of English. It's almost surely an inadvertent "agreement with the nearest" (AWN) -- instances of which are moderately common, especially in speech. But it turns out that for many speakers, there is a very small island of AWN cases that are indeed in their language and for which the "technically correct" agreement is dreadful.

Geoff's position is essentially that mistakes happen; people say and write things that they didn't intend and will disavow if they're given a chance. This is not even a slightly daring proposal. The rich literature on errors in language depends on our being able to make a distinction between inadvertent errors, on the one hand, and differences between the "correctness conditions" ("rules of grammar", in the usual terminology, though this expression can be misleading) on the language of different people -- between error and mere variation. In many cases, the distinction is easy to make, but, as Geoff points out, sometimes the linguists might get it wrong:

One could imagine that there might be people who actually have different correctness conditions, so that the quoted sentence was grammatical for them. There could be people for whom tensed verbs agree with the nearest noun phrase to the left, for example.

There are ways to investigate these things, as Geoff goes on to say. And most of the time, when you investigate AWN examples, you discover that people just lost track of where they were in the production of a sentence and used a recent NP (instead of the appropriate, but more distant, NP) to determine agreement on the verb. This happens so often that we can usually feel pretty sure that examples like the following -- which are ridiculously easy to collect -- arise in similar fashion. Modifiers following the head of a NP are the very devil.

(2) Let's see which one of the two of you are next. (dialogue on a Beverly Hills 90210 episode, heard in rerun 6/29/04)
(3) On handout: "... discuss challenges each approach still faces...". But said: "... the challenges each of them still face..." (speaker in LSA presentation, Oakland, 1/7/05)
(4) ... what the phonetic character of the rises are... (graduate student in conversation, 1/18/05)

Especially troublesome are sentences where the head refers to something other than an individual, either because it's a mass noun (industry in (5)) or because it's a universal (everything in (6) and (7)), so that plural semantics is in the air, and then a post-head modifier contains a syntactically plural NP:

(5) Mr. Geffen said that DreamWorks had been judged unfairly in an era where the entertainment industry, particularly the music, television and Internet businesses, have gone through tremendous upheavals. ("A Monster Hit but No Happily Ever Afters", by Laura M. Holson and Sharon Waxman, NYT, 5/17/04, p. C1)
(6) Everything from doorknobs to live alligators are for sale. (reporter from Congo, NPR's All Things Considered, 6/9/04)
(7) Normally in my lab, everything that I write, including academic emails, are proofread by someone before they are sent out. (e-mail to AMZ, 3/22/04, in mail checked by staff)

So all would seem (relatively) clear, until I came across item (8), which happens to have the subject , in this case a coordinate subject, after the verb:

(8) Going to his house was what I lived for. There were liquor, music, and a strong desire for my body. (J. L. King, On the Down Low (Broadway Books, 2004), p. 33)

As I pointed out on the American Dialect Society mailing list on 12/28/04, (8) has the "correct" (plural) agreement with expletive there, but it still sounds weird to me; I'd much prefer (8').

(8') Going to his house was what I lived for. There was liquor, music, and a strong desire for my body.

A few respondents stuck with the technically "correct" (8) -- and I am not denying their judgments -- but many agreed with me that (8) was awful, (8') much better (maybe even simply the "correct" version), and (8") straightforwardly acceptable:

(8") Going to his house was what I lived for. There were drinks, music, and a strong desire for my body.

This sure looks like AWN, but oriented towards a following subject rather than a preceding one. And in fact, as I pointed out on 1/10/05 on ADS-L, the estimable Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage had already figured this stuff out. In the "there is, there are" entry, we find scholarship stretching back nearly a hundred years:

...when a compound subject follows the verb and the first element is singular, we find mixed usage--the verb may either be singular or plural. Jespersen... explains the singular verb as a case of attraction of the verb to the first subject, and illustrates it... from Shakespeare... Perrin & Ebbitt 1972 also suggests that many writers feel the plural verb is awkward before a singular noun, and Bryant 1962 cites studies that show the singular verb is much more common in standard English.

What we have here is a tiny, and very specific, AWN island -- grammaticalized, to be sure -- in the midst of a general English requirement for straightforward subject-verb agreement. Hey, these things happen.

To add a little spice to the whole thing, I should point out that my guess about (8) is that King originally wrote (8') and it was "fixed" by a copy-editor. As a little bit of evidence in favor of this idea, I note that (as I pointed out on 12/31/04 on ADS-L) in the very same book King has at least one singular agreement where many of us would have the plural:

(9) The need [for a down-low connection] and strong desire to make that connection overrides all common sense. (p. 159)

This looks like the very common vernacular pattern (spread across geographical regions) for existential-there sentences to have singular verbs, no matter what. Or possibly it's AWN (with connection as the relevant determining noun). In any case, my guess is that (9) is just something that escaped the editor's red pencil. Hard to believe that someone who wrote (9) would have gone for (8) rather than (8'). Of course, anyone who wants to do fieldwork with J. L. King can go at it.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 27, 2005 11:34 PM