Dead quantitatives, revived by “grammar”

A bunch of teachers have taken my grammar test.

Or is it… a bunch of teachers has taken my grammar test?

Why does the second sound so bizarre?  Is the frequency with which we match apparent subjects like “a bunch” with “have” or “are” a lamentable pattern of grammatical laziness or is “bunch” just a special kind of word, rather than the noun it appears to be?

An interesting transition appears to have happened or be happening to English partitives and quantitatives, phrases like “a piece of”.  Under certain circumstances, they seem to lose their grammatical class as noun phrases and are instead interpreted like adjectives, modifying a noun to come rather than being nouns themselves.  You know the most common of these – “a lot of”, which appears to be a noun phrase with an indefinite article (“a”), a single noun (“lot”), and a prepositional phrase (“of ~”).  In practice, “a lot of trees” is interpreted as a noun phrase about “trees”, not about a “lot”, which can see reflected in in the verb conjugations in sentences like “a lot of trees are in the park”, wherein “are” conjugates to match the plural noun “trees”.  Needless to say, different noun phrases with a similar forms to “a lot of”, e.g. “a room with” or “a shot in”, are not treated this way – “a room with windows” is not a noun phrase about windows.  I’ve never heard a sentence constructed like “a room with windows were open to let in the breeze” – have you?

You probably think I’m about to condemn a lot of the English teachers who took my survey for having bad grammar.  No, I’m not.  Instead, I’m about to propose a semi-regular change in grammatical class that most people’s (including my) notion of correct grammar hasn’t caught up with yet.  I name this below the jump.

Dead and dying quantitatives

Let’s get some jargon out of the way first – partitives and quantitatives are distinguished from one another in that partitives separate for reference some “part” of a larger group.  “A piece of the pizza” contains a partitive.  A quantitative on the other hand may look very similar to a partitive but doesn’t intend to separate anything from a larger group, merely to give the amount of a type of thing.  “A piece of pizza”, because it doesn’t refer to a subset of any particular pizza, could be considered a quantitative.  For our purposes, this distinction is of less interest than the fact that “a group of our friends” (partitive) and “a groups of friends” (quantitative) should, on the face of it, both take third-person singular verbs like is or has to match the head of their noun phrases (“group”).

One more bit of jargon: a dead metaphor is an indirect reference that has had its middleman removed to become a direct reference.  Give up, for example, no longer has to pass through the meanings of give and up (one’s soul to God, if I recall) to get to its current meanings of yield or surrender; it means those things by itself.  Certain combinations of words are used so often for one meaning that they come to mean only that, not as a result of consistent interpretation of their combined meanings mediated by grammar but idiomatically as a single unit.  I attribute the change that I describe in the meanings and grammar of partitives and quantitatives to a similar phenomenon, and for that reason I refer to phrases like a lot of as dead quantitatives (not dead partitives, because after dying they always refer to quantity).  Dead quantitatives are noun phrases describing quantity that have ceased to be noun phrases in their grammar, and are instead adjectival quantifiers that happen to take the appearance of noun phrases.

The change of quantitatives and partitives into quantifiers, the “dying” process if you will, appears to affect some more than others.  “A few of the rabbits is in the field” offends the ears much more than “A warren of rabbits is in the field”.  We have learned to take a few as a quantifier rather than a noun phrase – to the extent that even suggesting that we treat it as a noun phrase is slightly jarring.  A few of and a lot of are as dead as quantitatives can get.  Try pairing these phrases with third person singular verbs and experience the delicious awkwardness.

Some words like group or number exist in between the opposites represented by the clearly dead few and and apparently still-alive warren and are capable of being interpreted as either noun phrases or quantifiers.  I call these gestalt quantitatives because they can produce an effect similar to a gestalt shift, in which we can switch back and forth between two competing interpretations of the same input.  Also because I like fancy names.

duck-rabbit_illusion
If this image were alongside images of ponds and park bences, you might be more inclined to take the “duck” interpretation. From Wikipedia. This page has quite a few I’d never seen before.

In this case, rather than a duck that turns into a rabbit or two faces that form a candlestick, our minds switch from the apparent subject (the quantifier or partitive) to its object (often the intended subject) depending on the rest of the sentence and what we think the author wanted to say.  If we think an action is taken by the group as a whole, we might say “the group of workers is surrounding the manhole”, whereas if we just mean “group” as an approximation of how many there are, it might be “a group of workers are repairing the sewer line”.  Note that the grammatical basis for choosing a singular verb form or a plural one hasn’t changed between the two sentences, and people can and do alternate between the two choices without feeling any need to self-correct.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 0.00.57.png

As we will see in the survey results, English teachers are far from settled on which is correct or even which criteria matter in determining which is correct.  COCA, on the other hand, paints a different picture.

A piece of research

I did a bit of polling/trolling (portmanteau: “trolling”) of my Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn communities again to find out whether people consider this change in grammar – from “a group of us is” to “a group of us are” – to be neglect of the rules or simply the rules.  I did this by asking them to supply a missing verb in sentences that had some kind of quantitative or partitive, and saw how many of them supplied the 3rd person “s” version of the verb (for a single subject, e.g. “is”) and how many provided the plural-friendly version of the verb (e.g. “are”).

I supplied the following 8 sentences, all pulled from COCA, with their be-verbs (“is”, “are”, “was”, or “were” in these cases) blanked out.  Sources according to COCA are in brackets.

A plethora of great mathematics books are available for elementary children. [academic]

The trio of toasts on the menu are served on a more rustic semolina bread. [newspaper]

When we got there an enormous flock of sheep was crossing the road. [fiction]

Money is speech and lots of money is louder speech that reaches more people.[spoken]

Well, someone, some group of people is going to have to take on al Qaeda in the Euphrates Valley in Syria. [spoken]

Forrest runs up a slope on a high mountain road. A group of people are jogging behind him. [fiction]

Like sounds being carried across a calm lake, a group of men is singing. [fiction]

And these directions:

This survey is directed at teachers of English as a second or other language.

Please enter the form of the verb in parentheses that fits in the blank *according to the rules of English grammar* and explain your choice in the box under each sentence.

I tried to activate people’s inner pedants in the hopes that I would get some sense that they considered their choices grammatical rather than simply normal or acceptable.  In this, I was trying to produce what some may call a false dichotomy between correct grammar and normal usage, or rather to elicit such a dichotomy if it existed in my participants’ heads.  I was planning to just point out how frequently our notions of “correct grammar” have little to do with the grammar of the real-world language English, but then I realized I could do this more convincingly with the might of COCA behind me.

What I would have done if this had been a proper experiment for credit instead of for clicks is have a control group of people not told to apply the “rules of English grammar”.  The fact that I didn’t do this means I can’t really claim that hypersensitivity to grammar caused my participants to choose verbs that were unnatural but “correct”.  My COCA searches, in the section after this one, imply but certainly don’t prove that.

My instinct is to conclude that people reach for whatever version of grammar they think they can explain when told to apply “grammar”, and ignore common exceptions as anomalies or examples of non-standard usage, not matter how odd-sounding the results of such processes.  Again, someone with access to an academic library should look into this.

The results are here:

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 12.03.08
The percentages represent the numbers of people who answered with a 3rd person verb – “is” or “was”. The smaller the numbers, the more people answered as if the subject were plural with “are” or “were”. “Either” or “both” were treated as 0.5. Oh, and n=45 (nearly as many as my MA thesis! If only I’d had Twitter then).

Clearly, respondents overwhelmingly preferred to see the quantitatives in question as nouns, except lots of, which they overwhelmingly considered a quantifier.  Detailed explorations of each item are below.  In the meantime, the correlations are looked like this:

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 20.52.30.png

The correlations tell us surprisingly little, and perhaps say something of value by how little they say.  The fact that only two of the questions with “group” were correlated fairly strongly implies that for gestalt quantitatives, interpretations as noun phrases or as quantifying adjectives depend on the context of the sentence that they are in.  Also, all of the quantitatives in this set appear to be of the gestalt variety, with the possible exceptions of a flock of and lots of.

What follows is a breakdown of the questions one by one.  Again, all of the sentences come from COCA.

“A plethora of great mathematics books are available for elementary children.”

Respondents’ answers were 72.86% is/was, 27.14% are/were.  Different than the source by almost a 3:1 margin, but not “wrong” per se.

Naturally, I’m not interested so much in whether participants gave the “right” answer, although several respondents seemed to anticipate that I would reveal which answers were really correct when I gave my results.  Whether their notions of grammaticality match common usage is another matter, and will be explored in the next section.

I added “plethora” in anticipation that its status as a rare, academic-register word would incline people to treat it as a noun rather than as a quantifier, but as you can see (and will see more evidence of later), I was only right where English teachers with grammar on their minds are concerned.

Some comments were:

*plethora* is a collective noun which can either take a singular or plural verb, here it means a variety of different titles so I’d go fo a plural verb but I think both is possible [are]

single noun followed by a prepositional phrase (agreement rule) [is]

a plethora is singular and “of books” serves only to modify the subject, but the “mistake” of saying are is so common as to be unremarkable in speech. You’ll hear it all the time if you have a regular -s plural noun right before the verb, people’s brains will commonly insert the plural verb and you won’t be thought of as an uneducated person if you do it when speaking, too. But if you’re writing something formal, fix it before your professor gets all bent out of shape about it. [is]

subject is ‘plethora’, singular uncountable noun, hence verb also in singular [is – and incidentally “plethora” is not uncountable, hence the indefinite article, although I don’t know what its plural form is]

“The trio of toasts on the menu are served on a more rustic semolina bread.”

75.00% is/was, 25.00% are/were.  Different from the source by a 3:1 margin.

This one to me is slightly harder to judge than “plethora”, because “a couple of” and “a few of”, two words with similar ranges in terms of numbers, are clearly dead quantitatives.  Nevertheless, my participants strongly favored treating it as a noun.

3 types of toast [are]

again, trio is a singular noun, therefore verb form in 3rd person sing [is]

because “toasts” is plural [are]

singular because it agrees with “trio” [is]

Only one trio [is]

“When we got there an enormous flock of sheep was crossing the road.”

90.00% is/was, 10.00% are/were.  Most respondents agree with the source.

A premodifying adjective on the quantitative may push people toward interpretation of it as a noun.  As with other idioms (assuming a flock of has a shot at being a dead quantitative), any form besides the recognized form forces it to have a different meaning.  Compare “a lot of people is coming” with “a bad lot of people is coming” – the addition of an idiom-breaking adjective seems to make the second one more tolerable.

I think sheep usually behave as one homogenous group, especially when crossing the road – thus singular verb [was]

Large collective nouns are singular in my experience of English. [was]

a flock is singular and sheep is an uncommon, irregular plural–one sheep, two sheep. If it were a flock of seagulls, however, see my answer to the plethora of books problem. [was]

flock is singular. [was]

“Money is speech and lots of money is louder speech that reaches more people.”

92.86% is/was, 7.14% are/were.  Almost none of the respondents saying “are” explained their choice, unfortunately.

Now here is something a bit interesting – by wide margins participants consider lots of to be unquestionably a quantifier rather than a noun phrase while asserting that plethora and trio are single nouns. No one commented on the apparent contradiction therein, which leads me to believe that lots of is similar to give up in its idiomatic opacity.  That is, it is a quantitative the same way Tutankhamun is a ruler – so famous in death that hardly anyone remembers he was once alive.

In fact, a general pattern in the comments is that almost everyone is supremely confident in choosing either “is/was” or “are/were”; there were a scant 9 “both/either” answers out of a total of 310 total answers for this entire survey.

money is uncountable and takes a singular verb regardless of the quantifier [is]

money is an uncountable noun [is]

General statement of truth and parallel tenses. [is]

we want to emphasise the quantity of money [are]

“Well, someone, some group of people is going to have to take on al Qaeda in the Euphrates Valley in Syria.”

83.82% is/was, 16.18% are/were.

One participant noted that “some group of” seems to be rephrasing the “someone” from earlier in the sentence here, which may bias people toward “is” rather than “are.  It’s possible that the other respondents were biased in this way as well, but most didn’t note that in their responses – they instead cited the status of “group” as an apparent single noun, as with the other items.

some [item or other] needs singular form [is]

a group is usually singular. In this case, the group will have to behave as a unit, so I’d use a singular verb. Also, the singular pump is primed by the use of “someone”. [is – if I could give a gold star to this answer, I would]

Was or is depending on context. Has been going is theoretically possible but sounds odd without a specific group named. [is]

A group is a collective noun. Compare groups of people are often saying that English is hard. [is]

The verb follows group of people. This, for me, dictates word choice and neither would jar. [both/either]

“Forrest runs up a slope on a high mountain road. A group of people are jogging behind him.”

65.71% is/was, 34.29% are/were.

I believe this sentence produces the strongest gestalt shift of all the ones I chose, which is why its answers are the most evenly split (about double the is‘s as ares instead of 4:1 or 8:1).  This item and the next were the only ones to have more than one person say “both/either”.  As the next section will show, group is in fact edging toward quantifier status in common usage.

here I perceive the group as consisting of individuals, everybody is probably jogging at their own pace [are]

A group of people for me usually colligates with plural verb forms. [are – interesting hedge in the answer]

group… is (group is the subject as it’s a noun, not a quantifier as in a few/some/many) [is]

It’s 50/50. If the speaker thinks of the group as a singular unit, the speaker will say is. If the speaker thinks of the people as individuals, the speaker will say are. [both/either]

a group is singular [is]

“Like sounds being carried across a calm lake, a group of men is singing.”

63.64% is/was, 36.36% are/were.

The justification for including this item is the implied cohesiveness of the “group” compared to the last item.  You don’t tend to think of joggers running with any kind of combined purpose, but men singing without one would be quite a cacophony.  Most respondents, however, still latched onto the noun “group” as the criterion for their verb choices.

This sentence seems ungrammatical [no answer]

the men were not singing as a group (“sounds” signals that – if they were singing as one, it would be “sound”) [are – incidentally, the reasoning here seems wrong]

Usually, you’ll see is in formal writing, but it is extremely difficult for people around here to say “men is”. They just can’t do it unless they stop to think about it. [no answer]

Group is singular and the action is collective. [is]

Only one group [is]

I asked the participants to name their national background and teaching context.  Teaching contexts were too widespread to yield anything useful (except the comment: “University (I didn’t add explanations because I’m on summer vacation and couldn’t be ar*ed”), but national background did produce a few unexpected things.

First, British participants were more likely to look at the quantitatives as nouns rather than as quantifiers.  It was suggested to me by a coworker that Brits might be more inclined to use “are/were” even for unambiguously single group nouns, due to their tendency to refer to certain group nouns like musical groups in the plural, as in “Pink Floyd are legends”.  Actually, the British participants in this survey chose “is/was” over “are/were” far more often than average on every item except the last one, where they were 1% below the mean.  Given my small sample size, there isn’t much we can say definitively about this, but it is clear at least that no tendency to do what my coworker predicted was observed here.

Non-Brits were more likely to see the quantitatives as quantifiers, although not enough to consitutute a majority for any survey item but one.  Americans gave 66% of the “both/either” responses despite comprising 44% of the total respondents.  There was a large contingent of outer circle or expanding circle respondents, who gave slightly more “are” answers than would have been proportional to their numbers.  These good folks, coming from Czech Repubic (I think I know this one), Belgium, Brazil, India, Peru, Colombia, and Portugal, made up the only group (such as it can be called a group) to supply more “are” answers than “is” answers for a plethora of.

As it turns out, this is more in line with how the majority of American English users, as tallied by COCA, sees these words.

Evidence from COCA

It’s one thing for me to claim that it’s weird to say “a couple of people is sitting on the couch”, but do a significant number of people agree?  I should really cite data other than my own instincts when I assert that dead quantitatives needn’t trip people’s grammar alarms – like the phrase “a significant number of” in the last sentence.

I did a collocation search on COCA for the quantitatives/quantifiers a plethora of, a trio of, a group of, a number of, a fraction of, a few of, and a flock of:

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 21.54.24.png
 I kept it to 1-4 spaces to limit the number of false positives – hits like “a few of the reasons that hunting is critical to wildlife conservation”.  It was impractical to totally eliminate these, which is why I say these collocations give me a rough rather than exact estimate

I counted up the results for verb.BASE (base verb forms, as in “have”) added to the results for “are” (because it is not a base form) and then verb.3SG (which included “is”).  This gave me a rough estimate of the relative frequencies with which the words above are considered quantifiers (i.e. dead quantifiers) and considered noun phrases.  This method excluded “was” and “were”, but since that exclusion would apply equally to the results of both categories, I didn’t consider it a great threat to the validity of my findings.

The results suggest that the classification scheme in the first section,

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 11.43.29
this one,

describes the situation fairly well.  Some of the phrases in question are overwhelmingly used with plural verbs, others are split, and some are usually considered to be single nouns.  One thing that is clearly evident is that in normal usage, the quantitatives in question are not categorized as noun phrases as a rule.  That is, the fact that they appear to be noun phrases doesn’t seem to exert much influence on people’s interpretations of them as such or as quantifiers.

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 22.57.05.png
The percentages, as before, are the proportion of responses with 3rd person singular verb use.

 

Surprisingly, the status of a quantitative as quantifier or noun phrase seems relatively stable across different genres and registers.  “A plethora of”, for example, gets 33% 3rd person verbs in COCA’s spoken category, 50% in fiction, 53% in magazine, 33% in newspaper, and 50% in academic.  “A few of” gets under 15% in all categories.  This implies that the status of a quantitative as dead, gestalt, or alive is not just a matter of informality or lack of attention, but is a property of the phrases in question.

To ferret out the false positives, I also tried searching only for those phrases occurring only after a period.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 12.18.32.png

That is, I searched for the phrases in question occurring in the subject position.  This resulted in mostly similar numbers (except “a fraction of”), based on far fewer hits (e.g., “. a plethora of” had a total of 8 hits vs 44 from the search above).

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 12.15.16.png

The anomaly of “. a fraction of” having 0% singular verb use while “a fraction of” has nearly 60% appears to be a result of “a fraction of” having very little use as a subject.  There were only 2 hits for “. a fraction of ” + verb.BASE, and 0 divided by 2 is the 0% you see above.

So at least a few of the phrases that my survey participants called out as noun phrases when tasked with applying the rules of grammar are not interpreted that way regularly, but instead are used as quantifiers (dead quantitatives) or on a case-by-case basis to either show quantity or cohesiveness (gestalt quantitatives).

Caveats

The results of these searches are replete with red herrings and false positives which would take hours to account for.  Sentences like the one at the top here show up in every search:

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 22.10.01

Which means some number of hits for each phrase are results of the phrase appearing in a subordinate clause, the next verb after which applies to some other noun.  I was surprised and pleased to see “a lot of people is” gets 49 hits on COCA, only to find out that all of them seem to have “a lot of people” at the end of a noun clause, with “is” referring back to the subject of the main clause (“You know, part of the conversation that you hear from a lot of people is how does Trump get away with it?”).  Luckily, I can see no reason to think that this trick of verb collocation would happen more with some phrases than others.  I toss my hands in the air on this one.

Some of the phrases I tested for also take singular or uncountable nouns as objects, a la “a plethora of information” (top noun.SG hit for “a plethora of”) or “a fraction of the cost”.  Others do not, as the strangeness of “a group of cost” or “a number of information” attest to.  This would have the effect of driving the number of hits for 3rd-person verbs upwards even if the phrase in question were a completely dead quantitative. I.e., “a plethora of information” would yield hits for “is” even if speakers had meant to pair “is” with “information” rather than with “a plethora of”.  This means that the higher number of 3rd-person verbs for “a plethora of” and “a fraction of” may be higher for reasons other than people interpreting them as noun phrases.

COCA also regularly mischaracterizes plural nouns as verbs and vice versa, as in “a trio of Vietnam vets” being returned as a hit for “a trio of * verb.3SG” (as in “vets candidates for office”).  Again, I have no choice but to assume these false positives are equally distributed across all my searches.

As for the ability of this data to contextualize my survey, my COCA searches represent verb choices in far more sentences than the few I had my participants respond to (did I mention I consider “data” an uncountable noun? That’s how progressive/regressive I am).  Still, the size of the difference seems noteworthy – roughly double the likelihood of choosing 3rd person verbs among my sample than in similar situations among the COCA dataset.  It suggests a bit of overcorrection on the part of English teachers with grammar on their minds.

So what does this all mean?

In a sentence, “people apply simpler grammar rules than the ones that they use in daily life when they think they’re being careful about grammar”.  To give my position away, I don’t think the rules of grammar should require much conscious thought to apply for fluent users of a language, especially for purposes as common as quantifying a subject.  If our instincts want us to put “are” there, and we have to overcome a lot of queasiness to replace it with “is”, there is probably a reason for that even if we can’t describe it verbally.  At some point our formal grammar will catch up to the usage; that is why we don’t still learn to pair 3rd person singular subjects with verbs ending in “-eth”.  Until then, the fact that the number of rules we can state is smaller than the number of rules at work when we speak or write should tell us just that languages and grammars are very deep, not that most of our countrymen have “bad grammar”.

As an ESL teacher, I believe this should inform how we approach this topic and others like it for our students.  We should be sensitive to the difference between not knowing (not having acquired, etc.) that subjects considered singular take “is” and those that are plural take “are” and not being sure what the convention is when referring to a number of things under the umbrella of a group noun.  There are ways to approach this while putting meaning rather than grammar first, and as the COCA data illustrates, that may indeed be the best way.

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3 thoughts on “Dead quantitatives, revived by “grammar”

  1. Hi, Mark. Very interesting, as always. First of all, I’d like to say that the way you took the concept of gestalt shift and transplanted it to a linguistic phenomenon was truly intriguing. Regarding the control group you didn’t have, even if you asked me, a non-native speaker/teacher of English, NOT to apply the rules of English grammar when completing the survey, I would have anyway. In fact, if you asked me to complete any gap-fill like this, my teacher mind would immediately detect the trick. I suppose it works differently in the minds of native speakers; I’m not saying their ‘grammar guard’ wouldn‘t sit up and take notice in such a situation, but they’d probably rely on instinct more. However, when reading your post, I suddenly realized that sometimes (when completing the survey), I focused on meaning rather than the grammatical aspect of an item. For example, I literally tried to visualize if a group was a bunch of individuals or a mass. But I must add that it took some mental effort, and I’m not sure what I would say in a spontaneous conversation. By the way, I’m surprised that ‚trio‘ is almost always followed by a plural verb. Thanks for writing this up and for sharing (for clicks). 🙂

    Like

    • Haha, thanks for reading. I made a decision about a year ago that if I actually wanted people to read what I was doing instead of putting it on my CV, blogging was superior to journals. Incidentally, I think I first read about gestalt shifts as applied to ambiguous grammar in a Steven Pinker book. Probably about dangling modifiers or something like that.

      Liked by 1 person

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