April 20, 2006

Are we an it or a they?

Brian Weatherson's remark about Far From the Madding Gerund, quoted by Mark earlier today, provides a lovely example of the tangles that can sometimes result from the interplay of (i) subject-verb number agreement, (ii) pronoun-antecedent number agreement, and (iii) the semantics of noun phrases denoting collections of people or human institutions:

Language Log is having a book published of their best posts for the last few years.

What are we according to him? Are we an it who is, or are we a they who are?

Don't get me wrong: I'm not criticizing Brian's syntax. Saying "Language Log are having a book published" would have been perfect and unremarkable in British English but too distinctively British for the American segment of the blogosphere. (Brian is an Australian, and Australian English is closer to British than American, and it is British English that notoriously favors the use of plural agreement with nouns denoting organizations or collections of people, as in "The government are worried". Americans strongly avoid that usage.) But saying "its best posts" would also be too weird to get away with: a mindless singular non-human entity referred to as it can't write posts all on its own without help from a group of human writers, can it?

I think Brian's syntactic compromise here — switching from a singular agreement choice to a later plural pronoun choice — was just about optimal, given the resources the English language makes available. The situation was certainly an awkward one; but one has to do what one can. Human languages are not finely-honed tools for the expression of thought, perfectly designed, optimally suited to their purpose. They evolved. They get by most of the time, as one would expect, but they have ragged edges, and sometimes little corners of them are a bit dysfunctional.

By the way, the LSA's journal Language has just published a big, interesting article on the psycholinguistics of singular and plural agreement with subjects like Language Log and the government; I don't have time to discuss it here right now, but I might later. The reference is:

Bock, Kathryn; Sally Butterfield; Anne Cutler; J. Cooper Cutting; Kathleen M. Eberhard; & Karin R. Humphreys (2006): ‘Number agreement in British and American English: disagreeing to agree collectively.’ Language 82.64-113.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 20, 2006 11:14 AM