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Concourse 2



Concord can be defined as: agreement between words in gender, number, case, person, etc. which changes the forms of words.
English concord would, on the face of it, seem easy because English lacks (mostly) gender and case considerations so we are left with number.
In most tenses, too, the verb in English is not inflected to show number at all.  This means that:
    the data appeared to confirm this
will not alter whether you are using the noun data as a singular mass concept or the plural of datum (which is what it is).  However, used with a verb like be or the present simple tense that does alter to show number, then the speaker / writer must make a choice.
    the data appear to confirm this
    the data appears to confirm this
and either:
    the data were hard to get
    the data was hard to get
Many other languages do inflect the verb in all persons to show whether the subject is singular or plural and speakers of these languages will generally be quite clear and consistent in matching verb form to number.  In this respect, English may appear sloppy and inconsistent.

A simple rule of thumb in English is

A subject which is not definitely marked for plural requires a singular verb
(Quirk and Greenbaum, 1973: 176)

But, as we shall see, the situation is not quite as clear as it might seem.

thumb up thumb down

What do you accept?

First, take this little pedantry test.  Mark the following as grammatically acceptable or not before you click for some comments.

  1. The door are closed
  2. The public are unconvinced by the promise
  3. The congregation are listening
  4. The jury is unanimous
  5. The jury are divided
  6. The government are proposing a new law
  7. Thunder and lightning is on its way
  8. I told Peter and Mary but neither have replied
  9. I told Peter and Mary but neither of them have replied
  10. One in ten schoolchildren take drugs
  1. A large number of people have arrived already
  2. There were a range of possibilities
  3. Those sort of books are not recommended for children
  4. Good manners is a rarity
  5. Everyone thinks they know the right answer
  6. The group who were asked to decide couldn't do so
  7. The group which was asked to decide couldn't do so
  8. None of them are here yet
  9. Neither she nor her husband are coming
  10. Either of the boys are welcome

Now we can look at all 20 examples to see what's going on.
Try to explain what's happening in each example and then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

The door are closed
eye open
This is plain wrong, of course.  The subject of the verb is not marked as plural so we need a singular verb form.  The odd noun in English which takes no plural inflexion such as sheep may prove troublesome.
The public are unconvinced by the promise
eye open
This is an example of notional concord.  The speaker is conceptualising the public as a plural entity although it is grammatically singular.
The congregation are listening
eye open
Notional concord.  Here the speaker may well be familiar with individuals in the congregation so thinks of it as a plural entity rather than a singular mass.
The jury is unanimous
The jury are divided
eye open
This is another example of notional concord with the addition of adjectives which lead to the use of singular or plural verb forms respectively.
unanimous implies a single opinion
divided implies that individuals differ.
The government are proposing a new law
eye open
Political journalists and politicians often use this form when speaking of the government because they are familiar with the individuals who make it up.  Note that politicians frequently refer to the government as we or they rather than it.  Foreign, less familiar, governments may well be referred to as it.
Thunder and lightning is on its way
eye open
This is an example of a binomial in English and such things are usually treated as singular.  Other examples include: supply and demand, salt and pepper, hell and high water etc.
If the binomial contains a noun marked for plurality, however, the plural verb is preferred:
The nuts and bolts are, not is, simple.
I told Peter and Mary but neither have replied
I told Peter and Mary but neither of them have replied
eye open
The first case is notional concord.  The word neither is singular but the speaker's notion is that Peter and Mary is (are?) the subject of the verb.
In the second case, the explanation is proximity concord because the plural pronoun them is followed immediately by the verb.
One in ten schoolchildren take drugs
A large number of people have arrived already
eye open
In both cases we have an example of proximity concord because the speaker is influenced by the plural nouns, schoolchildren and people.
In the second case, the situation may be regarded as similar to the next example.
There were a range of possibilities
eye open
Words such as range, group, variety etc. are problematic.  Strictly speaking, they should be singular and should be treated so in formal writing and speaking.  Informally, using the plural is not considered 'wrong'.
Those sort of books are not recommended for children
eye open
This is a double anomaly.  Not only is sort not pluralised after those (as it usually would be) but it is also followed by a plural verb form, breaking the cardinal rule.  It's clumsy, however, and most speakers would get around it with something like Books of that sort ...
Good manners is a rarity
eye open
This is arguably not strange at all if the speaker considers manners to be a singular noun (clearly, it is not the plural of manner here).  At worst it's an example of notional concord but the alternative (Good manners are a rarity) sounds odd to some people.
Everyone thinks they know the right answer
eye open
English does not have a pronoun for singular people unmarked for gender so this is a way of getting around the awkward he or she construction.  It's acceptable in informal speech but re-phrasing will get around it in formal speech and writing.
It is not a question of noun-verb concord so much as noun-pronoun concord, of course.
The group who were asked to decide couldn't do so
The group which was asked to decide couldn't do so
eye open
This is another interesting anomaly in English to do with notional concord.  If we treat the group as personal, using who as the relative pronoun, we use the plural form of the verb.
If we treat the group impersonally, using which as the pronoun, we prefer the singular.
None of them are here yet
Neither she nor her husband are coming
Either of the boys are welcome
eye open
All of these are examples of proximity concord because each verb is preceded by a plural entity.
Speakers will often select the plural verb form, especially in informal language.
Strictly, the verb should be singular in all cases.


Proximity and notional concord rule, OK?

Or should that be 'rules'?

If we conceive of the term proximity and notional concord as a single concept, then it should be treated as a singular subject noun phrase.  If we think of it as two subjects, then it's plural.
There are a few considerations of the times when strictly grammatical concord is overruled by the effect of proximity and notion:

collective nouns
nouns referring to a collection of people or objects are frequently combined with plural forms of the verb and pronouns, especially in speech where the constraints of grammar are less strongly felt.  This is a form of notional concord.  For example:
    The audience were delighted by the performance and their applause was prolonged
    The congregations
were singing lustily and their pastor was pleased
However, when we conceive of the collective as a single entity, then in both speech and writing, the choice will be singular.  For example:
    The audience was small but its enthusiasm was obvious
    The congregation was told to get on its
(their?) knees
are both possible and common, especially in writing.
coordinated subjects
subjects consisting of two elements or more cause problems, too.  For example:
    Your help and advice was invaluable.  Without it, the job would have been impossible.
is common when the speaker's perception is that help and advice form a single abstract entity.
The situation is less clear when the subjects are less closely related.  For example:
    Your advice and the money you lent us were both important to us.  Without them, we'd have been stuck.
and here the plural forms are preferred because the acts of lending money and giving advice are less closely related in the speaker's mind.
When the coordinated subjects are clearly independent entities, the plural forms are preferred so we have, for example:
    Your car and mine are similar.  They both use too much fuel.
When two or more subjects are in apposition, i.e., referring to the same entity, only the singular form is possible so we have, for example:
    Sense and Sensibility, that fine book and great example of clarity in writing, is one of the triumphs of British writing.  It should be on everyone's bookshelf.
where the singular is preferred because the title and the two descriptions are all co-referential.
When the determiner both is used, the plural form is always preferred as in, e.g.:
    Both your advice and your help were invaluable.
either ... or
this correlative coordinator also presents problems.  It's simple when the elements are both singular, so we have, for example:
    Either John or Mary is coming
and when the elements are both plural, the obvious choice is plural verb forms:
    Either John and his sister or Mary and her brother are coming
but a problem arises when one element is plural and the other singular so both:
    Either your reasoning or your references are faulty
    Either your references or your reasoning
is faulty
are possible and here, the tendency in English is for the verb to conform to the number of the closest subject.  In other words, proximity rather than notion rules and whichever noun phrase is nearest to the verb will determine its form.
Even with two singular coordinated elements, native speakers will often ignore the grammatical rule and produce, e.g.:
    Either you or I need to be there.
neither ... nor
is another correlative coordinator but in this case, native speakers will often opt for the plural as in:
    Neither Mary nor Peter are taking a holiday
    Nether Peter nor Mary is taking a holiday
is the form preferred by grammarians and more likely in writing but sounds rather formal.
quasi-coordinator prepositions
these include as well as, rather than, along with, more than and as much as and the tendency is to make them singular when they coordinate two subject elements or more so we have, e.g.:
    John, as well as his whole family, is renting a cottage this summer
    Mary, rather than her brother, is doing all the work
    Mary, along with her sister, is hosting the party
    John, more than Peter, is capable of fixing that PC
    Harry, as much as I, enjoys classical music

However, especially in written English, a plural form is often used is the subjects both refer to the main verb so the first and third examples above might be:
    John, as well as his whole family, are renting a cottage this summer
    Mary, along with her sister, are hosting the party
The other examples, because the two noun phrases do not equally apply to the verb, will remain singular.
more than
This compound determiner follows the proximity rule, regardless of the logic, so we have, e.g.:
    More than five people have arrived
    More than one child
is playing truant
The second example is, naturally, quite illogical – more than one must be plural.
refers to both mass and count noun phrases and behaves slightly quirkily in terms of concord.  So we get, for example:
    The money was promised but none has materialised
where none stands for a mass noun so will always be singular grammatically
    I ordered the part but none has arrived
where none refers to a singular count noun so the singular form is preferred
    I ordered the parts but none have arrived
where none refers to a plural count noun so invites the plural form although grammarians will insist that it is singular.
pronoun concord and sexist language
an anguished area of English usage is the avoidance of he as an unmarked pronoun in a sentence such as
    Everyone thinks he knows better
where he acts as an unmarked form and includes both sexes.
The presumption is that we should prefer a form such as
    Everyone thinks he or she knows better
which is clumsy
    Everyone thinks they know better
which breaks the concord rule twice by have a plural verb form and a plural pronoun to stand for the singular everyone.
The same issue arises with the indefinite pronouns combining some, any, no with -body or -one.  We get, then, sentences such as:
    Does anyone know their student number?
    Nobody brought their laptop
    Somebody has lost their wallet
The pronoun whoever joins in the fun here so we find sentences such as:
    Whoever refuses to pay will have the money taken from their account
All these examples fly in the face of logical concord but are frequent in spoken, informal English.
In formal and / or written English, there is no obvious way out of the difficulty so most writers prefer to re-phrase entirely to avoid either causing offence to female readers or causing offence to grammatically sensitive readers (or both).


Other varieties of English

American (and to some extend Canadian and Australian usage) is slightly different.  In AmE, a singular noun will usually take a singular verb form whatever the notional agreement would be.  So we get:
    The government is (not are)
    The administration is (not are)
    The company is (not are)
Note, however, that notional concord can sometimes occur in reverse in all varieties so we get, e.g.
    The United Nations is
(not are).


Other languages

As well as often being stricter than English and insisting on formal rather than notional concord between verb and number, many languages have a much more complex system of concord, sometimes referred to as agreement.

Languages such as French, Spanish and Russian will often alter the form of adjectives to agree with the gender of the noun they modify.  So, for example:
In French: la grande maison; le grand homme [the big house; the big man]
Note, too, that the form of the article also agrees in gender with the noun it precedes as occurs in many languages.
Languages such as German and Czech which have complex case structures will also alter lexemes to agree in these terms, too.  So, for example:
In German:
    mein Name ist

    my name is
    Sag mir deinen Namen
    Tell me your name

Note, too, that the form of the possessive determiner also changes to agree in case with the noun (subject in the first example, object in the second).
other kinds of concord
In some languages, such as Serbian, the form of the participle may change to agree with the gender of the speaker so, e.g., the participle in I was drinking will alter depending on whether a male or female is speaking.


Issues for learners and teaching

When in doubt:

Learners crave rules and concord is, unfortunately, an area where speaker preference often overrules grammatical and logical considerations.  When in doubt:

  1. The grammatically 'correct' formulation will usually be acceptable, even if it may sound unnatural to a native speaker's ear.  So, prefer:
        Nether John nor Mary is coming
        Neither John nor Mary are coming
    and prefer
        Either you or I is the person to do it
        Either you or I are the people to do it
  2. In writing, following strict grammatical concord rules is usually preferred.  So, prefer:
        Your help and advice were invaluable
        Your help and advice was invaluable
    Additionally, avoid awkward and ungrammatical uses of pronouns and verbs in an effort to use non-sexist language and rely instead on re-phrasing, so prefer:
        On their first day, all students will get their timetables
        On his or her first day every student will get their timetable
  3. Notional and proximity concord rules usually produce the most natural sounding language in speech.  So, treat collective nouns as plural, in spoken English and prefer:
        The group are playing tonight
        The group is playing tonight
        The government have no answer
        The government has no answer
        The set of options are quite varied

        The set of options is quite varied
    but prefer the singular in formal, written prose (or in American usage).
  4. Proximity rules when none of the other considerations is (are?) in play.

Be aware of simplicity in English

Concord is messy, especially in British English where considerations other than grammatical form often override logical verb and pronoun use.  It is, however, important to remember that concord in English applies almost solely to verb forms (and not in all tense forms) and to pronoun use.

The simplicity of the ways that verbs conjugate and nouns decline in English may well confuse some learners because they expect agreement and may, therefore, produce errors such as:
    *He cans
    *The greens pullovers

Word order, too, may cause problems because English does not alter its articles to show case.  Word order is often the only way to determine which is the subject and which the object.  Other languages, which do denote case with changes in the determiners or the nouns themselves, have, accordingly, freer word orders because the forms signal case.  For example, in German:
    The dog bit the man
    Der Hund biss den Mann

    The man bit the dog
    Der Mann biss den Hund

Note the single letter change to the determiner: der to den, subject to object.
But if the noun phrases are reversed, the meaning is still clear:
    Den man biss der Hund
still means
    The dog bit the man
    Den Hund biss der Mann
still means
    The man bit the dog
although the object has been fronted for effect.
In English, reversing the noun phrases reverses the meaning:
    The man bit the dog
    The dog bit the man

Take a test in this area.

Quirk, R & Greenbaum, S (1973), A University Grammar of English. Harlow: Longman
On-line Dictionary of Language Terminology, available at http://www.odlt.org/ [accessed November 2013]