Specializations > Morphosyntax

Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)

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Does anyone know of any literature on the following phenomenon?

2 doctors is fine

The subject seems to be a plural DP, but is actually implicitly a clausal subject whose verb is elided. I say this because the predicate doesn't ascribe a property to the DP "2 doctors" but the proposition of having or there being 2 doctors, e.g. in a question of how many doctors there should be in an operation theatre. It could be paraphrased as:

It is fine to have 2 doctors
It is fine having 2 doctors
To have 2 doctors is fine
Having 2 doctors is fine

I would consider this an instance of semantic agreement where conceptually you are talking about a single idea rather than a collection of two individuals.

Similarly we can use either singular or plural with a collective noun like "family":
The family is/are very nice.

There's some dialectal and conventional variation in exactly which form is selected, but in the right contexts it can vary.

In this case, "2 doctors" is similar to "macaroni and cheese", with a formally plural expression that represents a single idea.

I agree with you that it may be an elided form of a clause (for example, or an NP like "the idea of..."), but I don't think that is required for this to work, and I would think that in that actual usage it is more about viewing the collection as a whole than referring to some implied larger constituent.

An alternative analysis could be that the NP becomes [-count] so that singular agreement is used by default. I'm not sure about that analysis, and it wouldn't parallel the possible plural agreement for singular forms (like "family"), but it might help to explain it too.

You should be able to find substantial literature on the topic (or at least related topics) by searching for "semantic agreement".

One more example is the word Government- I have come across constructions like - The government has and The government have - Not sure if  it is a peculiarity of Indian English

Most organizations (businesses, governments, schools, etc.) take plural agreement in British English, so it's not surprising that includes Indian English. In American English there is a strong tendency toward singular agreement. But in a few cases it's more flexible, especially with the word "family" in particular, and especially when in an expression like "your family is/are nice". At least to my (American) ears, it's much harder to do that for a company because we aren't thinking of the individual members as individuals (indeed, that is the semantic contrast for "family", it's not a meaningless difference in form!). But anaphoric reference to groups/organizations is plural with "they", which is interesting-- "The company did something. They did it well."

I disagree with Daniel. "Two doctors is fine" is definitely a case of ellipsis, as suggested in the OP, whereas regarding a group as including its members and accordingly encoding the latter in the singular is a metonymy=the whole stands for its parts. These are two completely different mechanisms.


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