January 14, 2007

Natural number

In response to my posts yesterday and today on the historical tendency to shift from "there is a number of" to "there are a number of", I got email from David Denison, an expert on the history of English syntax. His comments are reproduced in full beyond the jump.

I think there are three partially independent things going on here. One is the reanalysis of partitives generally, so that headship of a phrase like a majority of Americans shifts from the first noun to the second.

Another is that there's gets reanalysed as an invariant form and so can be used readily with plural NPs -- much more readily than the uncontracted form in speech. (Brief comments in my 1998: 213-14.) You mentioned this in yesterday's post. I agree with you about the incipient reanalysis. Trouble is, written English (especially American written English) is so heavily prescripted that a writer thinking of monosyllabic contracted there's may still get subedited (or self-edited) on the page to there is. I wonder whether fear of the contraction outranks fear of a concord mismatch -- indeed there might well have been a rule re-ordering over time (if prescriptive rules are subject to ordering!).

Anyway, it's an interesting question. For some earlier careful counting of 19C data, plus comparisons between what contemporary grammarians said should happen and what actually happened, see

Dekeyser, Xavier. 1975. Number and case relations in 19th century British English: A comparative study of grammar and usage. (Bibliotheca Linguistica, Series Theoretica.) Antwerp and Amsterdam: De Nederlandsche Boekhandel.

And the third tendency is towards what I once fancifully called 'natural number':

Remembering how natural gender supplanted grammatical gender over the course of the OE and eME periods (CHEL II: 105 8), we might see a tendency towards 'natural number' in such developments as plural none, plural government, public, etc., and likewise singular themself. (1998: 123)

I guess your number of phenomenon -- or rather the more general reanalysis of partitives -- could be referred to this tendency too.


Denison, David. 1998. Syntax. The Cambridge history of the English language, vol. 4, 1776-1997, ed. Suzanne Romaine, 92-329. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


I guess the full six-volume set will go on my birthday list for the next few years.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 14, 2007 01:22 PM