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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter II. Syntax

NUMBER



VERY little comment will be needed; we have only to convince readers that mistakes are common, and caution therefore necessary.


  1. The copula should always agree with the subject, not with the complement. These are wrong:

    The pages which describe how the 34th Osaka Regiment wiped out the tradition that had survived since the Saigo rebellion is a typical piece of description.—Times.

    A boy dressed up as a girl and a girl dressed up as a girl is, to the eye at least, the same thing.—Times.

    People do not believe now as they did, but the moral inconsistencies of our contemporaries is no proof thereof.—Daily Telegraph.


    It must be remembered that in questions the subject often comes after the verb and the complement before it; but the same rule must be kept. E. g., if the last example were put as a question instead of as a negative statement, 'What proof is the inconsistencies?' would be wrong, and 'What proof are &c.?' right.

    Some sentences in which the subject contains only, a superlative, &c., have the peculiarity that subject and complement may almost be considered to have changed places; and this defence would probably be put in for the next three examples; but, whether actually wrong or not, they are unpleasant. The noun that stands before the verb should be regarded as the subject, and the verb be adapted to it.

    The only thing Siamese about the Consul, except the hatchment and the flag, were his servants.—Sladen.

    The only difficulty in Finnish are the changes undergone by the stem.—Sweet.

    The most pompous monument of Egyptian greatness, and one of the most bulky works of manual industry, are the pyramids.—Johnson.


    The next example is a curious problem; the subject to were is in sense plural, but in grammar singular (finding, verbal noun):

    Finding Miss Vernon in a place so solitary, engaged in a journey so dangerous, and under the protection of one gentleman only, were circumstances to excite every feeling of jealousy.—Scott.


  2. Mistakes in the number of verbs are extremely common when a singular noun intervenes between a plural subject (or a plural noun between a singular subject) and its verb. It is worth while to illustrate the point abundantly; for it appears that real doubt can exist on the subject:—'"No one but schoolmasters and schoolboys knows" is exceedingly poor English, if it is not absolutely bad grammar' (from a review of this book, 1st ed.).

    And do we wonder, when the foundation of politics are in the letter only, that many evils should arise.—Jowett.

    There is much in these ceremonial accretions and teachings of the Church which tend to confuse and distract, and which hinder us...—Daily Telegraph.


    This sentence, strictly taken as it stands, would mean something that the writer by no means intends it to, viz., 'Though the ceremonies are confusing, there is a great deal in them'.

    An immense amount of confusion and indifference prevail in these days.—Daily Telegraph.

    They produced various medicaments, the lethal power of which were extolled at large.—Times.

    The partition which the two ministers made of the powers of government were singularly happy.—Macaulay.

    One at least of the qualities which fit it for training ordinary men unfit it for training an extraordinary man.—Bagehot.

    I failed to pass in the small amount of classics which are still held to be necessary.—Times.

    The Tibetans have engaged to exclude from their country those dangerous influences whose appearance were the chief cause of our action. Times.

    Sundry other reputable persons, I know not whom, whose joint virtue still keep the law in good odour.—Emerson.

    The practical results of the recognition of this truth is as follows.—W. H. Mallock.

    The Ordination services of the English Church states this to be a truth.—Daily Telegraph.

    All special rights of voting in the election of members was abolished.—J. R. Green.

    The separate powers of this great officer of State, who had originally acted only as President of the Council when discharging its judicial functions, seems to have been thoroughly established under Edward I.—J. R. Green.


  3. They, them, their, theirs, are often used in referring back to singular pronominals (as each, one, anybody, everybody), or to singular nouns or phrases (as a parent, neither Jack nor Jill), of which the doubtful or double gender causes awkwardness. It is a real deficiency in English that we have no pronoun, like the French soi, son, to stand for him-or-her, his-or-her (for he-or-she French is no better off than English). Our view, though we admit it to be disputable, is clear—that they, their, &c., should never be resorted to, as in the examples presently to be given they are. With a view to avoiding them, it should be observed that (a) the possessive of one (indefinite pronoun) is one's, and that of one (numeral pronoun) is either his, or her, or its (One does not forget one's own name: I saw one of them drop his cigar, her muff, or its leaves); (b) he, his, him, may generally be allowed to stand for the common gender; the particular aversion shown to them by Miss Ferrier in the examples may be referred to her sex; and, ungallant as it may seem, we shall probably persist in refusing women their due here as stubbornly as Englishmen continue to offend the Scots by saying England instead of Britain. (c) Sentences may however easily be constructed (Neither John nor Mary knew his own mind) in which his is undeniably awkward. The solution is then what we so often recommend, to do a little exercise in paraphrase (John and Mary were alike irresolute, for instance). (d) Where legal precision is really necessary, he or she may be written in full. Corrections according to these rules will be appended in brackets to the examples.

    Anybody else who have only themselves in view.—Richardson. (has ... himself)

    Ce n'est que le premier pas qui coûte, in novel-writing as in carrying one's head in their hand.—S. Ferrier. (one's ... one's)

    The feelings of the parent upon committing the cherished object of their cares and affections to the stormy sea of life.—S. Ferrier. (his)

    But he never allowed one to feel their own deficiencies, for he never appeared to be aware of them himself—S. Ferrier. (one's)

    A difference of opinion which leaves each free to act according to their own feelings.—S. Ferrier. (his)

    Suppose each of us try our hands at it.—S. Ferrier. (tries his hand; or, if all of us are women, tries her hand)

    Everybody is discontented with their lot in life.—Beaconsfield. (his)


  4. Other mistakes involving number made with such pronominals, or with nouns collective, personified, or abstract.

    No man can read Scott without being more of a public man, whereas the ordinary novel tends to make its readers rather less of one than before.—Hutton.

    And so each of his portraits are not only a 'piece of history', but...—Stevenson.

    Le Roman d'un Spahi, Azidayé and Rarahu each contains the history of a love affair.—H. James.

    He manages to interest us in the men, who each in turn wishes to engineer Richard Baldock's future.—Westminster Gazette.


    When each is appended in apposition to a plural subject, it should stand after the verb, or auxiliary, which should be plural; read here, contain each, wish each in turn (or, each of whom wishes in turn).

    As the leading maritime nation in the world and dependent wholly on the supremacy of our fleet to maintain this position, everyone is virtually bound to accord some measure of aid to an association whose time and talents are devoted to ensuring this important object.—Times.


    Every one is indeed a host in himself, if he is the leading maritime nation.

    It is not in Japan's interests to allow negotiations to drag on once their armies are ready to deliver the final blow.—Times.


    The personification of Japan must be kept up by her.

    Many of my notes, I am greatly afraid, will be thought a superfluity.—E. V. Lucas (quoted in Times review).


    My notes may be a superfluity; many of my notes may be superfluous, or superfluities; or many a note of mine may be a superfluity; but it will hardly pass as it is.

  5. Though nouns of multitude may be freely used with either a singular or a plural verb, or be referred to by pronouns of singular or plural meaning, they should not have both (except for special reasons and upon deliberation) in the same sentence; and words that will rank in one context as nouns of multitude may be very awkward if so used in another.

    The public is naturally much impressed by this evidence, and in considering it do not make the necessary allowances.—Times.

    The Times Brussels correspondent ... tells us that the committee adds these words to their report.—Westminster Gazette.

    The Grand Opera Syndicate has also made an important addition to their German tenors.—Westminster Gazette.

    The only political party who could take office was that which ... had consistently opposed the American war.—Bagehot.

    As the race of man, after centuries of civilization, still keeps some traits of their barbarian fathers.—Stevenson.

    The battleship Kniaz Potemkin, of which the crew is said to have mutinied and murdered their officers.—Times.


  6. Neither, either, as pronouns, should always take a singular verb—a much neglected rule. So also every.

    The conception is faulty for two reasons, neither of which are noticed by Plato.—Jowett.

    ...neither of which are very amiable motives for religious gratitude.—Thackeray.

    He asked the gardener whether either of the ladies were at home.—Trollope.


    Were, however, may be meant for the subjunctive, when it would be a fault of style, not of grammar.

    I think almost every one of the Judges of the High Court are represented here.—Lord Halsbury.

    Every Warwick institution, from the corporation to the schools and the almshouses, have joined hands in patriotic fellow-working.—Speaker.


  7. For rhetorical reasons, a verb often precedes its subject; but enthusiasm, even if appropriate, should not be allowed to override the concords.

    And of this emotion was born all the gods of antiquity.—Daily Telegraph.

    But unfortunately there seems to be spread abroad certain misconceptions.—Times.

    But with these suggestions are joined some very good exposition of principles which should underlie education generally.—Spectator.

    Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman has received a resolution, to which is appended the names of eight Liberal members and candidates for East London...—Times.


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