Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Synesis (1).

Today: Sense over Syntax. In some contexts, meaning — as opposed to the strict requirements of grammar or syntax — governs subject-verb agreement. Henry Sweet, the 19th-century English grammarian, used the term “antigrammatical constructions” for these triumphs of logic over grammar. (Expressions in which grammar triumphs over logic are termed “antilogical.”) Modern grammarians call the principle underlying these antigrammatical constructions “synesis” (/SiN-uh-sis/). The classic example of an antigrammatical construction is the phrase “a number of” (= several, many). It is routinely followed by a plural verb, even though technically the singular noun “number” is the subject {a number of people were there}. Another example occurs when a unit of measure has a collective sense. It can be plural in form but singular in sense — e.g.: “Three-fourths is a smaller quantity than we had expected.”/ “Two pounds of shrimp is all I need.” If these constructions are grammatically safe, similar constructions involving collective nouns are somewhat more precarious. The rule consistently announced in 20th-century grammars is as follows: “Collective nouns take sometimes a singular and sometimes a plural verb. When the persons or things denoted are thought of as individuals, the plural should be used. When the collection is regarded as a unit, the singular should be used.” George L. Kittredge & Frank E. Farley, An Advanced English Grammar 101 (1913). Generally, then, with nouns of multitude, one can justifiably use a plural verb. Next: Nouns of Multitude. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Be the merit of the classics, ancient and modern, what it may, no writer can become a classic by imitating them.” G.H. Lewes, “Sincerity,” in Foundations of English Style 64, 67 (Paul M. Fulcher ed., 1927).
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