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Agreeing to Disagree: Why We Use "Notional" Agreement

In 2010, I wrote a column outlining some of the many subject-verb agreement rules, including this one:

None takes a singular verb if what it refers to is singular and a plural verb if its referent is plural.

Sean ate all of his peas; none are left on the plate.
I used the rest of the flour to make a cake; none is left.

But why is that? If none means "no one, not one," shouldn't it always be used with a singular verb? Formal agreement dictates that a singular subject pair with a singular verb and a plural subject pair with a plural verb. Yet the result doesn't always make sense:

Sean ate all of his peas; none is left on the plate.

When formal agreement fails us, we reach out for notional agreement.

What Is Notional Agreement?

Notional agreement, sometimes called notional concord or synesis, means applying subject-verb agreement rules according to the intended meaning rather than according to syntax. So we can pair a singular noun with a plural verb or a plural noun with a singular verb when the intended meaning calls for it:

The school committee disagree about what to cut from the budget.
Politics is a messy business.

If our teachers never taught us such rules, how do we know they exist? "We do not know who first realized that notional agreement exists as a powerful force in English grammar," says Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, "but it must be a fairly recent discovery. The 18th-century grammarians never tumbled to it, even though their examples for correction showed it being widely followed."

Notional agreement is a natural function of language, then, something we've done for who knows how long but didn't notice until recently. Paul Roberts wrote about it in 1954 in Understanding Grammar, and other usage commentators have written about it since then, including luminary Bryan Garner. Still other commentators have advised following notional agreement in specific cases without stating, perhaps without even recognizing, that's what they were doing.

Prescriptivist H. W. Fowler supports notional agreement in several cases. In his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, he writes at "none": "It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is sing. only & must at all costs be followed by sing. verbs &c. ; the OED explicitly states that pl. construction is commoner."

In Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, Theodore Bernstein makes the case for notional agreement under "Number" without using the term. "Some people are very literal-minded about the question of grammatical number," Bernstein writes. "They tend to concentrate on the exact word that they take to be the subject of the sentence, when sometimes they should be looking at the thought that the word or words represent."

When Should You Use Notional Agreement?

You can, of course, always use formal agreement, but there will be times when the result will sounded stilted and old-fashioned. When that happens, consider whether you have a case for notional agreement instead. In addition to the situations I gave in "Grammar Bite: Making Subjects and Verbs Agree," here are a few more that follow notional agreement:

None of takes a singular or plural verb, according to the noun following of.

None of the peas are left on Sean's plate.
None of the book is reproducible without permission.

The number takes a singular verb, and a number takes a plural verb.

The number of freelancers in the workforce is growing every day.
A number of freelancers are actually looking for full-time work.

Specific amounts of money take a singular verb, while vague amounts take a plural verb.

Five euros is equal to a little more than six US dollars.
Millions of dollars were spent on this year's presidential campaigns.

Nouns ending in -ics and referring to a field of study or subject take singular verbs.

Aerodynamics is the science of how solid bodies interact with air flow.

X percent of takes a singular verb if the noun following of is a singular or collective noun and a plural verb if it is a plural noun.

Eighty percent of the chocolate cake was eaten, but only ten percent of the vanilla cake was.
Fifty-four percent of students vote for the chocolate cake.

When formal agreement distracts readers from your intended message, it's time to apply notional agreement instead.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 14th 2012, 8:51 AM
Comment by: Thomas P. (New York, NY)
Helpful article, with this exception: The Sean's peas example. To my ear, "Not one (none) is left on his plate sounds right. In other words, he ate every single one.
Wednesday November 14th 2012, 10:06 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you, Thomas. "Not one is left on his plate" would be correct, of course. I wonder if having that in mind makes "None are left on his plate" sound wrong. The good thing is when something sounds wrong to our ears, we're free to rewrite it to something that sounds better.
Wednesday November 14th 2012, 10:22 AM
Comment by: Sara R. (Mercedes, TX)
Really interesting article! I have a question about the last example.

"Fifty-four percent of students voted for the chocolate cake." Doesn't "voted" go with plural or singular subjects? Maybe the example should be "Fifty-four percent of students vote for the chocolate cake."

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Wednesday November 14th 2012, 11:16 AM
Comment by: Becky C.
I may not be remembering correctly, but in the example: "The school committee disagree about what to cut from the budget.", it seems that the verb disagree should be singular (disagrees) as the committee as a singular whole is doing the disagreeing. The example sounds awkward to my ears.
Wednesday November 14th 2012, 12:04 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Yes, Sara, that example should have used "vote" instead.

Becky, if the committee members disagree with each other, you could say "the committee disagree." Amy Einsohn has a clearer example in "The Copyeditor's Handbook": "The couple disagree about money." Even out of context, we know that the two people involved are disagreeing with each other.
Wednesday November 14th 2012, 1:10 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Becky and Erin, we need to decide if the collective noun is an "it" or a "they" in each case. We could say "The committee disagree about what to cut from the budget, but agrees with the administration that cuts must be made."

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday November 14th 2012, 2:37 PM
Comment by: EILEEN T.
If our educators, and Erin this includes you, would re-learn and then return to teaching the profoundly tedious practice of diagramming sentences (and thereby getting students to understand parts of speach) this debate would be over--except for the exceptions which in the whole are few--and we'd be free to reclaim our language. Recreational reading could once again be a joy, freeing me from my need to edit while suppressing a scream. Don't even get me started on "You can count Beth and I in".
Respectfully,
Eileen Tye
Wednesday November 14th 2012, 5:49 PM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
Hi, you referenced Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. If I wanted to improve my "productive vocabulary" (term learned here), would you recommend it? I am trying to determine a good ITouch learner dictionary. It would help in some of the word games I find myself playing now and of course the career.

Thanks!
Wednesday November 14th 2012, 10:20 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
I agree with Becky. The committee disagree The committee is a single body so surely it has to be disagrees.
Thursday November 15th 2012, 10:28 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
If you use "the committee disagrees," then you're saying the entire committee disagrees with someone else. If there's division within the committee, then it would be correct to say "the committee disagree." However, I think most of us would choose to say "the committee members disagree."

Trapper, MWDEU is good for learning more about word usage. If you're interested in learning more vocabulary, check out VT's sister site, Vocabulary.com. It's excellent!
Thursday November 15th 2012, 5:35 PM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
Thank you. Erin B. The home page of Vocabulary.com gets right to it. Thanks!
Friday November 16th 2012, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
Erin B.

I started Vocabulary.com this morning with some questions and started a list and used some of the features inside the list as you add words. I can't wait to get the sensattion that I am expressing myself better. My first list is General Understanding of Words with my first word prosaic which referenced prose as opposed to poetry. Wow!

Thanks, again!
Sunday November 18th 2012, 2:04 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
i am so thankful for this article. clears so many doubts i had. but why should we say 'the committee disagree'? should it not be the committee disagrees'? i am still comfortable with ' none of the peas is left on the plate' - using is instead of are. could you help me please?
Tuesday November 20th 2012, 12:25 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Chandru, if you use "the committee disagrees," then you're saying the entire committee disagrees with someone else. If there's division within the committee, then it would be correct to say "the committee disagree." However, I think most of us would choose to say "the committee members disagree."
Tuesday November 20th 2012, 1:09 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
If not all the committee agrees , should it not be 'some committee members disagree'? Or, when all said and done - 'some committee members do not agree'?
Tuesday November 20th 2012, 2:38 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Ferial, yes, that's one option. Another is "the committee disagree."
Wednesday November 21st 2012, 8:56 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
tk u erin. now that is clear.
Wednesday November 21st 2012, 9:17 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Glad to help, Chandru!

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