1/6/2022 10:07

There exists a number

In actual reality English is changing. I try to contemplate that as an objective reality rather than as an existential threat to the world as I know it. After all if the language changes it must still exist. If English stopped changing we would class it with Old Church Slavonic and other dead languages. So the English language is changing and I should not be so surprised as to pause to write a comment on this necessary, obvious, and expected fact.

Yet I am just so surprised over and over.

Previously I have joined Calvin and Hobbes in noting the decay of the concept of Parts of Speech. Historically this has been most prominent in the indistinction between nouns and verbs: The dog dogged his quarry until he was able to tree it in a tree. Nouns are also used attributively as adjectives; we used to name them attributive nouns when so used but now they are just words. Verbs are regularly used nominatively: I received your invite while I was taking a drive last fall. More recently adjectives are being used to modify verbs without first being adverbialized suffixly.

Today however my emotions are being exercized by observing the fading of numeracy in English. In my experience no English speaker ever expressed Agreement in Number with full correctness but we did have a rule against which all sentences could be judged.

This morning Haroon Siddique, a legal affairs correspondent for The Guardian, reported on a decision by the European Court of Human Rights by informing us, "While today’s decision brings this case to a close, there remains a number of questions around what protections exist for LGBTQIA+ people". [1]

This nicely illustrates the conundrum with which fastidious users of English are faced. Had he written "there remain questions" the Agreement in Number would have been clear. In the actual sentence the question is whether "number" is being used Britishly or Americanly. "Number" is singular and refers to a set of more than one question. Idiom "A" would typically use a singular verb: Invariably the company reneges on its obligation to its customers. Idiom "B" does the reverse: The band jump in the lake one after the other. However where the plurality of the underlying elements is explicit ("a number of questions") idiom "A" will take a plural verb: There remain a number of questions.

Haroon Siddique follows neither idiom and instead wrote a sentence which precisely follows the actual requirement of the Rule of Agreement in Number. The actual subject is "number", a singular noun, and thus the verb must necessarily be singular: "a number remains".

Other public voices are guided by a greater laxity. While I would never hold up Robin Vos, Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, as a model of English usage, good government, or humanity, he does provide this typical example of Disagreement in Number: "I mean we know there is almost 1,000 people working there now." [2]

Similarly, "College Affordability Specialist Cheryl Rapp said ...'And it provides access to critical financial resources that's out there.'" [3]

Back in The Guardian again we find Dr. Andrew Hammond ("Historian & Curator at the International Spy Museum") talking about Jonathan and Diana Toebbes who were, at the time, charged with spying against the United States. Dr. Hammond informs us there is people who are: "There's people out there who think they're smarter than everyone else, yet he made quite an unintelligent decision."

It might be that Disagreement in Number is no more than a pervasive sloppiness and that a renewed rigor will raise us once again from peril to precision.

I doubt it. There is a movement afoot to leverage our sloppiness quite intentionally to change the grammar for reasons having to do with gender obscurity and quite apart from plurality. Thus Eric Hagedorn translates William of Ockham with the ungendered plural pronoun and matches the verb to that rather than to the original, singular, unspecific, and entirely ungendered "someone": "Hence someone who is drunk (who does not have the use of reason) who commits adultery does not sin, because although they [sic] have an act of willing and an intention concerning the act, they [sic] still do not have a right dictate of reason and so they do not sin." [5]

"They have" strictly follows the Rule of Agreement in Number as does "someone who is". "Someone ... they" blatantly and deliberately ignores agreement. My guess is that the intentionality of third person plural pronouns will find synergy in the incompetence of Robin Vos and Agreement in Number will go the way of Parts of Speech.

Ach, the English language are a strange beasts.

[1] Haroon Siddique, "'Gay cake' row: man loses seven-year battle against Belfast bakery"; The Guardian, 1-6-2022. https://www.theguardian.com/law/2022/jan/06/gay-cake-row-man-loses-seven-year-battle-against-belfast-bakery

[2] https://www.nbc26.com/news/state/some-wonder-if-racine-county-even-had-a-chance-after-losing-foxconns-electric-car-plant

[3] https://www.nbc26.com/news/local-news/very-discouraging-federal-financial-aid-applications-from-wisconsin-high-school-seniors-plummet

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/oct/17/jonathan-diana-toebbe-west-virginia-couple-accused-spies

[5] Eric W. Hagedorn. William of Ockham: Questions on Virtue, Goodness, and the Will. Cambridge University Press. 2021.