Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

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.

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

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.