Author Topic: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)  (Read 1027 times)

Offline Morphosyntax

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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

Offline Daniel

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #1 on: May 06, 2018, 11:16:01 PM »
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".
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Offline binumal

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #2 on: May 15, 2018, 12:39:41 PM »
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
« Last Edit: May 16, 2018, 10:26:23 AM by binumal »

Offline Daniel

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #3 on: May 15, 2018, 03:58:18 PM »
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."
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nico

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #4 on: May 16, 2018, 12:42:04 PM »
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.

Offline Daniel

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #5 on: May 16, 2018, 07:12:44 PM »
What evidence do you have for active ellipsis within that syntactic context? E.g., a larger 'deep structure' truncated to what we see? If not, then how is that different from thinking of it as a singular semantic concept, and therefore semantic agreement?

I don't "disagree" with you, I'm just not sure if there's a way to tell the difference here. I don't know of a general rule where you can take a clause and elide it and make it a subject, so I don't see why this is anything other than a conceptual issue structurally. I agree it relates conceptually to a clause as well, but "ellipsis" would suggest it is being actively shortened in the grammar and I know of no evidence for that.
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nico

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #6 on: May 17, 2018, 01:41:00 AM »
To me, there are two arguments supporting ellipsis.

(1) You find sentences such as "inviting 4 people is fine". In a context where the topic of discussion (an invitation) has already been established in the previous discourse, it is plausible that "inviting" might be dropped.

(2) If you say "two people/doctors are fine", there is a certain ambiguity due to the meaning of "fine"=in good health condition.
« Last Edit: May 17, 2018, 02:39:37 AM by nico »

Offline Daniel

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #7 on: May 17, 2018, 02:38:39 AM »
Quote
Ellipsis is something which speakers initiate and which only occasionally becomes fully grammaticalized (see Nicholas Evans: "Insubordination"). To me there are two arguments supporting ellipsis.
That's not a substantial argument. It's basically the same as me saying it's conceptual. Either way, it's outside of the grammar, if it's not something conventional. Yet, in this case, it is conventional.

Yes, you are right about those potential sources, but that doesn't mean they're still synchronically connected.

Again, I'm not sure we actually disagree about anything substantive here.
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nico

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #8 on: May 17, 2018, 02:43:48 AM »
In conceptual terms, to me there is a difference between the singular agreement with police/family and the "doctor issue". In the former case, family and police are conceptualized as a collective group containing different elements. In the latter, there is no such pattern (there is no such concept as "doctorship"). It seems difficult to reconcile the quantifier (2) with the singular unless we posit ellipsis derived from cases in which "doctors" serves as an object of verbs such as "consult", "call" etc. With "doctors" in the function of subject, this doesn't work:
*"two doctors is fine (for this job)".
« Last Edit: May 17, 2018, 02:52:56 AM by nico »

Offline Daniel

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #9 on: May 17, 2018, 03:18:07 AM »
Quote
In the latter, there is no such pattern (there is no such concept as "doctorship").
I don't follow this part.

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It seems difficult to reconcile the quantifier (2) with the singular unless we posit ellipsis derived from cases in which "doctors" serves as an object of verbs such as "consult", "call" etc.
The quantifier and plurality/count of the doctors is contextually irrelevant. The focus is on the idea.

One argument against ellipsis is that there are many (perhaps infinitely many) possible sources which all work out equivalently:
Having two doctors is fine.
The status/assignment of two doctors is fine.
The group of two doctors is fine.
Seeing two doctors is fine.

For an analysis of ellipsis in synchronic terms (enough to license agreement!) I would like to be able to identify a specific source. Technically my point here isn't enough to falsify the ellipsis argument (because indeed one particular possible source above could be the source), but I find it less convincing for that reason.

Quote
With "doctors" in the function of subject, this doesn't work:
*"two doctors is fine (for this job)".
I don't follow. "Two doctors is fine" works. And to my ears "...for this job" is also acceptable. Not with something more agentive maybe like "Two doctors operates well", but actually I think we can stretch that for a metonymic reading and have it work, even though it's a bit odd. It has a sort of comparative sense, like "One doctor operates terribly, two doctors operates well", with a sort of pun reading to it (zeugma?).

Quote
In conceptual terms, to me there is a difference between the singular agreement with police/family and the "doctor issue". In the former case, family and police are conceptualized as a collective group containing different elements.
I see "two doctors" as an abstract expression of an idea, rather than a way of counting how many doctors. It's an answer to "what" rather than "how many".

It's the same situation that comes up in the following:
"What do you want to buy?"
"Two apples is important."
"Three bananas is optional."
"Four oranges is too much."

These are being treated as ideas, like citation forms, presumably being quoted from a list or as hypothetical scenarios. We could relate them to "having two applies" (etc.) but that doesn't seem like a literal source of ellipsis to me. Instead, I'd say it's more like:

"The idea of two applies is good."
or
"The quantity/amount of two apples is good."

Given that I don't have any way to falsify an argument of the form "it's ellipsis" I don't know what else to say there, but to me I don't think there's anything wrong with having essentially cited elements taking singular agreement, exempted/shielded from external grammatical relations. It's not too different from a direct quotation: "He said 'two apples'."

--

But to be clear, I do appreciate your comments here, and maybe you'll convince me. These constructions are puzzling either way.
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nico

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #10 on: May 17, 2018, 03:38:29 AM »
I did not mean ellipsis in synchronic terms, but in diachronic ones.
Going back to your remark:

Having two doctors is fine.
The status/assignment of two doctors is fine.
The group of two doctors is fine.
Seeing two doctors is fine.

With regard to ""two doctors is fine (for this job)", I might have been a bit imprecise and I get your point. But also in this case, the sentence would be amenable to something along the lines of "employing two doctors..." with "doctors" functioning as direct objects.

(1) and (4) also imply "doctors" as an object, as a source also postulated by me. We don't need a specific verb as the source of omission, but a specific construction, i.e. a transitive one.
I doubt that "group" could lend itself to omission, and this all the more since this sentence with anaphoric "the" seems innatural to me (but I might be wrong). One would rather say: the two doctors who form this group...", I guess. A generic one with "a" instead of "the" sounds much more natural.
« Last Edit: May 17, 2018, 04:03:51 AM by nico »

Offline Daniel

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #11 on: May 17, 2018, 08:03:29 AM »
Quote
I did not mean ellipsis in synchronic terms, but in diachronic ones.
OK, yes, I agree about that.

However, I think I can come up with similar examples spontaneously, so I'd argue it's productive synchronically, at least with the right pragmatic circumstances. For example, take any restaurant menu, and pick two items, and I can say "X and Y sounds good". You could say that's still roughly "Having X and Y", but there's no immediate linguistic priming context, nor is "Having X and Y" a typical/conventional phrase associated (for me at least) with ordering at a restaurant (although of course those words are used but not in that particular pattern).

What's interesting, regardless, is that if this is a diachronic development (at least sometimes), then it relates to a side project of mine, thinking about ways in which diachronic changes leave remnant anomalies behind in the grammar in the linear form. So in this case, some original more complex construction has been simplified but left singular agreement behind.
Here are some slides about this:
http://publish.illinois.edu/djross3/files/2018/03/GrammaticalAnomalies.pdf
I'll save this discussion in my notes for that project as another possible example of such developments.

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We don't need a specific verb as the source of omission, but a specific construction, i.e. a transitive one.
Ah, very interesting, and a profound advantage of Construction Grammar to explain such data over a Generative model assuming a specific underlying sentence.

Quote
I doubt that "group" could lend itself to omission
Group is really interesting in itself:
"The group is nice."
"The group are nice." (marked, but possible in the right context.)

While your points about the potential sources make sense, it is still my intuition that this is a conceptual substitution (e.g., implicitly "the idea of...") rather than a more relevant underlying structure. I don't know if others would agree with me though.
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nico

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #12 on: May 17, 2018, 08:32:57 AM »
With regard to the kind of omission underlying subordination, Evans himself notes that there might be different matrix clauses, which however need to be semantically (and in this case I'd add "constructionally") similar or compatible with the outcome.

What you remark is very interesting and provides further evidence for ellipsis (regardless of the stage where it might have occurred):

"(Having xy) sounds good"

motivates the origin of "sounds good" in a copulative construction with an obligatory singular verbal form.

The reason why:

"Wine and bear tastes good" (in the sense of different beverages and not of a cocktail)

is hardly acceptable (at least to me) is the fact that this sentence cannot be embedded in a construction which requires a 3rd singular person verb: "Having/ordering... tastes good".

And yes, I am a "construction freak", although a bit less than Goldberg ;-)
« Last Edit: May 17, 2018, 08:55:00 AM by nico »

Offline Daniel

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #13 on: May 17, 2018, 09:16:17 AM »
Quote
"Wine and bear tastes good" (in the sense of different beverages and not of a cocktail)

is hardly acceptable (at least to me) is the fact that this sentence cannot be embedded in a construction which requires a 3rd singular person verb: "Having/ordering... tastes good".
I see no problem with that, either as grammatical or as having an underlying source like "Drinking X and Y tastes good". (Admittedly that in itself ends up being somewhat metonymic or something, but it works for my ears.)
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nico

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Re: Plural Subject + Singular Agreement (Implied Clausal Subject)
« Reply #14 on: May 17, 2018, 09:50:13 AM »
Interesting. So, if I get you right, "wine and beer tastes good" is commonly used in the sense I specify above?