Monday, 6 May 2013

On a pair of alternatives

A correspondent writes from Oman asking me to resolve a question that has apparently been much debated at his university recently. What is the correct concord in the sentence In the 1870's the 1st pair of denim jeans was / were made?

As with so many grammar questions, the answer is 'it depends'. If usage is split, there's invariably a reason for it. In this case, the issue is one of 'notional concord' - that is, the verb agrees with the part of the subject that is most important in the speaker's mind. If the sentence had been The jeans are on the table there would have been no problem. The subject consists of just one notion, so there is no choice to be made, and normal 'grammatical concord' operates, with the plural verb.

As soon as you say 'A pair of jeans' two notions are brought together and now there is a possible choice. If 'pair' is the notion the speaker is focusing on, the verb would be singular according to normal grammatical rules. But the question arises: why would anyone ever want to do that? Pair is simply a routine summation noun. There is no semantic contrast. One wouldn't normally try to say 'I have a pair of trousers, not a --- of trousers'.

But as soon as pair is modified, things change. The first pair of jeans allows a contrast with later pairs. Now speakers have a semantic choice to make. If the notion of 'first pair' is dominant in their minds, they will go for singular concord. If, notwithstanding the adjective, they are still thinking of the sentence as being about jeans, they will go for the second. But surely the reason for saying first pair is to make that notion semantically pre-eminent - otherwise why say it at all? In which case I'd expect to see singular concord following.

And what happens (I hear someone saying) if both notions are equally important in the mind? Well, semantic reasoning is now ruled out, and people have to resort to other factors. If you have been steeped in a prescriptive grammatical tradition, you will follow the traditional recommendation, and use the singular (as in a number of and other such phrases). In everyday speech, however, 'concord of proximity' is the main influence - that is, we make the verb agree with the nearest noun - so the concord will be plural. When a 'grammatical' user and a 'proximity' user meet each other - as sometimes happens in the usage column in a newspaper - then sparks can fly!


Margaret said...

Wouldn't you say 'a number of people are...' but 'the number of people was...'?

DC said...

I wasn't thinking of that kind of example, but of cases like 'There is/are a number of people in the room'.

Warsaw Will said...

Hi, I wrote about 'a number of' on my blog some time ago. I got the impression that 'are' was often considered the better solution. On Ngram, the results are pretty overwhelmingly in favour of 'are a number of people' and 'there are a number of'. (Unfortunately there's a five word limit, so I can't do 'there are a number of people'). And there seems to be little difference between BrE and AmE.

Terry Collmann said...

'In the 1870s" rather than 'In the 1870's".

(nothing missing, so no need for apostrophe)

DC said...

The point about the apostrophe is off topic, but it's perhaps worth pointing out that 'missing something out' isn't the only criterion for the use of apostrophes, as examples like 1870's, p's and q's, and many more cases illustrate.

damo04 said...

I come across this problem all the time when marking assignments. I always pause at the keyboard after I've typed 'a range of...'. Would be great to know what to continue with, but, alas I agree it depends. I do find I go more with the plural though.