Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Subject-Verb Agreement (8).

Today: Plural Subject Intended to Denote Area or Statistic. Some writers fall into the habit of implicitly prefacing plural nouns with understood words such as “the idea of,” “the field of,” or even “the fact of.” To be sure, some of these wordings are perfectly idiomatic {mathematics is where my talent lies}. But the habit should not extend beyond the reach of idiomatic comfort. Consider the following title, over an article by Ray and Tom Magliozzi: “Duplicate Cars Means Customer Pays More for Name,” Amarillo Daily News, 21 Aug. 1993, at B5. In that title, there is an implied subject — something like “the fact of having . . . means.” But the phrasing looks sloppy. As in the example just cited, this mistaken idiom seems to occur most frequently with the verb “mean” — e.g.: “There, all-scarlet clothes means [read ‘mean’] disease in the house.” Tamora Pierce, Circle of Magic: Sandry’s Book 141 (1997). If the writer really wants a singular “means,” then the subject should be a gerund (as in “someone’s wearing scarlet clothes means . . .”). Sometimes a plural noun is intended as a singular statistic, but the grammar is mangled — e.g.: “Amid controversy over numbers, 37 million Hispanic people is just shy of 37.7 million black citizens in new Census Bureau estimates.” “Hispanics Close to Outnumbering Blacks,” USA Today, 22 Jan. 2003, at A3. This isn’t a problem involving a singular “people” as opposed to plural “peoples.” It’s a problem of comparing one singular numerical amount with another. A possible revision: “Amid controversy over numbers, the Hispanic population (37 million) is just shy of the black population (37.7 million) in new Census Bureau estimates.” Next: Miscellaneous Rules. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “And keep your verbs short! Keep them ragged and expressive. Make them say what you have to say crisply and to the point. Verbs like come, go, run, walk, do, fly, jump, send, meet, buy, cry, coax, break, give force and action to your sentences.” Lillian Eichler Watson, The Bantam Book of Correct Letter Writing 14 (1958).
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