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Grammar question

Yesterday I pounded out the following:

    "If some enterprising journalist out there can find a third bullet item, that'd be enough for a major trend story. You always need three items. Four is unnecessary, two isn't enough."

    An alert reader named Frieda subsequently posted this comment:

  " would be nice if the writer and/or his editor has noticed his grammatical errors: "four is unnecessary. two isn't enough"? Yegods. As I understand verb tense, if you have more than one item for a subject, the verb becomes plural. Thus, the sentences should read: Four are unnecessary. Two aren't enough. Is it too much to expect that a reasonably well paid writer for a nationally renowned newpaper should know this? Very disappointing."

     Rushing to my defense, in a way, is JW, who pleads with Frieda to give me some slack, since presumably I do my writing when inebriated:

    "Hey Joel, can I handle this one? This. Is. A. Weblog. Joel writes it on the fly, and he's usually drunk on his back porch, trying to type with one hand while holding a stogy in the other. If the quality of the writing rises above a certain level then the paper won't let it just be a weblog any more and we won't have anything to do at work."

    Actually the phrase in question was written in a caffeine frenzy early in the morning, but whatever. Finally "Tomfan" stepped into the fray:

   "I think "four is" and "two isn't" are correct, since the verbs are referring to the numbers "four" and "two," which are singular, not to "items," which -- you're right -- is plural."

     I like this last explanation, but confess I don't know who's right here. When you type fast you go on sound. What I wrote sounded correct, but it seems as though Frieda's version would sound fine, too. Someone who actually understands the English language needs to step in here and resolve this. 

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 28, 2005; 8:51 AM ET
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Tell Frieda that "Very dissapointing" is not a complete sentence, and therefore - Yegods! - she is as guilty as the next person of bad grammar. She's right about the verb tense in your sentence, though.

Posted by: copyeditor | June 28, 2005 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I'm a copyeditor too, and I'd probably accept either version; certainly neither screams out as being "wrong." I assumed (perhaps incorrectly) that frieda was being facetious when she said "As I understand verb tense, if you have more than one item for a subject, the verb becomes plural." So I couldn't resist the urge to jump in and defend your use of "four is" and "two isn't." (There's probably a rule about the correct verb tense to use with numbers in some grammar book; if I find it I'll let you know.)
I'm all for flexibility in language. If something works, it works.

Posted by: Tom fan | June 28, 2005 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Not so fast, there, Grammar Nazis.
If the writer intends that a multiple subject be taken as a group of the whole (one thing), it is absolutely correct to use a singular verb since the whole is singular. This is called notional agreement. If the author's notion, so to speak, is to communicate the whole (as he says it is), it would be notionally incorrect in that case to use the plural verb form.

Posted by: Acar | June 28, 2005 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Ah. This makes sense. Thank you. And you know, the more I think about it, "Two aren't enough" just doesn't sound right. (Come to think of it, neither does "it would be nice if the writer . . . has noticed" or "Is it too much to expect that a reasonably well paid writer . . . should know this?" But now I'm just getting mean . . .)

Posted by: Tom fan | June 28, 2005 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I can't find the rule--don't keep my Elements of Style at the office anymore because nobody here respects it as an authority. BUT--the pattern for this phrase is "Two's company, three's a crowd."

I will say "It is I," but I will never say "Two are company, three are a crowd."

Posted by: kbertocci | June 28, 2005 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Okay Grammaristas, please help out here.

Achenbach writes, "rushing to my defense, in a way, is JW, who pleads with Frieda to give me some slack, since presumably I do my writing when inebriated"

"Since" or "because"?

Posted by: AraK | June 28, 2005 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Who doesn't respect The Elements of Style as an authority? Troglodytes!

Posted by: jw | June 28, 2005 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Strictly speaking, it should be "because," or maybe "given that." But within the chatty style of a blog, the informal "since" is probably OK. (I know I used "since" incorrectly myself in the posting quoted above.) Sometimes it's good just to write the way you would speak. I imagine that when Joel is chatting to his neighbors on his porch, he uses terms such as "since presumably" rather than "given that presumably." (Now, back when he was donning his toga and teaching journalism, he might have used the latter phrase.)

Posted by: Tom fan | June 28, 2005 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Well, I do have my American Heritage Dictionary handy, and here's the usage note: Since is often a weak form of because, but its connotation of time implies that what it introduces makes the preceding matter follow by logical sequence or inference: He stayed behind, since he had become ill.

I think Joel's sentence passes this test.

And in general, I think this blog qualifies as "informal writing" so we don't need to be overly picky about it. OK?

I asked my daughter and she says the people on the blogs she reads never correct each other's grammar...

Posted by: kbertocci | June 28, 2005 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, but this blog is a cut above the rest.

Posted by: Tom fan | June 28, 2005 1:19 PM | Report abuse

jw: yeah, it's the "pearls before swine" syndrome, that's why I took the book back home.

Posted by: kbertocci | June 28, 2005 1:34 PM | Report abuse

you need to refer this to Pat the Perfect, most often located through Gene W's weekly disscussion.

Posted by: dr | June 28, 2005 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Or to Tom? (THE Tom, I mean -- not Tom Cruise.) Although I like to think that we've resolved the issue quite nicely here.

Posted by: Tom fan | June 28, 2005 1:47 PM | Report abuse

This is actually a little more complicated.

I think "Four is enough" shows singular agreement in this case not because "four" is construed as a group or something similar, but because the verb is really agreeing with a proposition, as in "having four is enough", or "It is enough to have four".

You can see this more clearly with a verb like "sound". Compare
"eight kids sounds like a lot of work", with "eight kids sound really noisy". In the first example, "sounds" agrees with the proposition "having eight kids", and is singular. The sentence says nothing about the sound that the children make. In the second example "sound" actually describe the noise that the children make, and thus shows plural agreement with the children.

So Joel's intuition was right on the mark, as is usual in such matters.

Colin Phillips
(Linguistics, U. of Maryland)

Posted by: Colin Phillips | June 28, 2005 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I have a new idol!

Posted by: Tom fan | June 28, 2005 1:58 PM | Report abuse

After your post caused a mild fight in my household, here's the explanation that stopped the arguing: Numbers can be used as either nouns or pronouns. "Four" as a noun is singular, so when refering to the concept of four, e.g, "four is certainly a crowd," the singular is correct. When used as a pronoun (for instance, refering to some previously mentioned children), go with "four are..."

This then degenerated into an argument about the singular or plural nature of "any"...

Posted by: Helena | June 28, 2005 1:59 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Tom fan | June 28, 2005 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Yesterday I got a survey in the mail from the DNC. It was addressed to "Democratic Community Leader." Based on the fact that I'm not registered to vote in VA, I assume that this was sent to EVERYONE, Dems and Reps alike. After reading the survey and realizing how idiotic and unscientific the questions were, I decided that the actual survey was trash and that the only real purpose was the solicitation for contributions on the last page. Obviously, I had no interest. But I wondered, if this is sent to EVERYONE, including Reps, then aren't the inflammatory comments in the cover letter and the skewing of the questions counterproductive to the democratic (small d) process? Most importantly, this survey came with a pre-paid envelope to return it--so what should I send to the DNC instead of the survey?

Posted by: jw | June 28, 2005 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Hey, we were talking about grammar here. But if you must send something, send a copy of "The Elements of Style." Or perhaps Bill Walsh's "The Elephants of Style."

Posted by: Tom fan | June 28, 2005 2:34 PM | Report abuse

If you had properly dropped the "ain't" bomb, you ain't never would've been in this mess.

Posted by: - | June 28, 2005 2:42 PM | Report abuse

What about "Eats Shoots and Leaves"?

In a day and age when I hear "boughten" used by supposedly educated people, I think something like verbs agreeing with assumed prepositions is a lost cause.

I really need my own blog.

Posted by: jw | June 28, 2005 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Tom fan, this is for you, a link to my first and best "grammar idol," Geoffrey Nunberg, who is, ::speaks in a hushed and reverent tone:: the chairman of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary. In other words, he is the man. (not taking anything away from Joel, who rules in his own domain)

Posted by: kbertocci | June 28, 2005 2:47 PM | Report abuse

The chairman of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary! I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy!
Thanks, kbertocci.

Posted by: Tom fan | June 28, 2005 2:56 PM | Report abuse

While we're at it, I'm thinking "well paid writer" should have a hyphen between "well" and "paid."

Oh, and in the phrase " would be nice if the writer and/or his editor has noticed his grammatical errors ..." the word "has" should be "have."

Posted by: Baggins | June 28, 2005 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm loving this. And it's nice not being invaded by the Googlers. (I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised that "Grammar Question" didn't make it onto Google's News page.)

Posted by: Tom fan | June 28, 2005 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Why do readers find it necessary to point out any kind of grammatical "error"? This makes me crazy. I've been an editor, both in print and online, and there is NOTHING more annoying than some prissy reader who takes the time out of what I am sure is a busy (and FASCINATING) day to point out that you used a comma where a semicolon should be...and when the offense is questionable (as in this case), it's even worse. Typos get through, editors have faulty judgment, English is an imprecise language. These are the facts. The "gotcha" letter from readers is about the lowest, most pointless, form of criticism. Pat yourself on the back, "Frieda", but for the love of Pete, keep it to yourself!

Posted by: editor at large | June 28, 2005 3:41 PM | Report abuse

And isn't "thus" the same as "therefore"? If so, it should be "...plural; thus, the..." Right? C'mon, I want to play too!

Posted by: jw | June 28, 2005 3:42 PM | Report abuse

ed. at large: that's the internet for ya. Mob mentality and the protection of anonymity. Thanks, Al.

Posted by: jw | June 28, 2005 3:46 PM | Report abuse

I suppose my perception was that the original sentence would go as follows: "Having four is unnecessary, having two isn't enough," but Joel left out the assumed verbs (as is often the case in colloquial usage). (Wow! I got to use the word "colloquial"!)

But hey, who knows? I also have been known to use "boughten," although it makes me cringe internally. Chalk it up to too much Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kid.

Posted by: toady | June 28, 2005 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Hello, hello! It's not verb TENSE at all. It's subject-verb agreement. If you're going to complain about spurious "errors" in someone else's grammar, you'll be a bit more credible if you actually use a correct term for the concept you're complaining about.

Posted by: Sam | June 28, 2005 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Maybe we should cut Frieda some slack at this point. We really don't know anything about her (or about anyone else who posts on this blog, for that matter). When we criticize a fellow poster, we don't know whether we're attacking a five-year-old girl, a 95-year-old man with Alzheimer's disease, a person who received little or no formal education, or a person who speaks English as a second language. I'm not saying Frieda falls into any of those categories (if she does, her blog comment represents quite an achievement); it's just that we don't really know where she, or anyone else, is coming from. (Gee, I hope Frieda was one of those Googlers who washed on to the blog during the Tom Cruise frenzy, i.e., that she's not a regular Achenblog reader and that she therefore hasn't checked back in and seen all the mean things we've said about her. Starting to feel a little guilty here . . .)

Posted by: Tom fan | June 28, 2005 4:48 PM | Report abuse

People who correct other people's grammar, unless it's their job, are twits. Like we need our 3rd grade teacher haunting us for life!

Posted by: jw | June 28, 2005 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Going back to the original issue - isn't the subject "items" and not the numbers 4 and 2? In other words, the actual thought was "having 4 items is (are) unecessary, having 2 items isn't (aren't) enough"? If subject/verb agreement were the real issue, the phrase would clearly call for the plural verb form. The fact that the singular sounds more natural points to the fact that the actual agreement is between the phrase "having 4 (2) items" and the verb.

Posted by: bostonreader | June 28, 2005 6:02 PM | Report abuse

I remember grammar fondly....don't use it much but remember studying it in depth. We were in grade 7 and part of an experimental open class. We worked mostly on our own, and could pretty much choose how fast we worked. Have you ever seen 12 - 13 year olds work hard at school with no adult supervison for a whole year of school? Me neither. Well almost no supervison. We did have one teacher, Mrs. D, who worked at her classroom desk while we studied music in her classroom. We played recorder, and we learned 2 songs. We played them endlessly. She says her nightmares are still accompanied by "English Country Garden" on recorder. This blog brings back some warm and fuzzy memories in the nicest way!

Posted by: dr | June 28, 2005 6:48 PM | Report abuse

I remember grammar unfondly because it was so rigid. I think if class had involved occasional investigation into the unclear boundaries of language, such as we're going here, I would have been less intimidated, had more fun, and learned a lot more!

Posted by: bostonreader | June 28, 2005 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Oops - that was a typo. I meant "such as we're DOING here". I wouldn't want you all to think my grammar was THAT bad.

Posted by: bostonreader | June 28, 2005 7:01 PM | Report abuse

Four "is"? Two "isn't"? Don't make excuses for this guy. This is ungrammatical, plain and simple. My 12-year-old writes better than this. And they pay him to write this stuff. Go figure.

Posted by: Leopold | June 28, 2005 7:07 PM | Report abuse

It IS my job to correct other people's grammar (here at The Post), so I trust I'm not offending jw by weighing in: I'll second Colin Phillips's eloquent endorsement of "four is unnecessary" in Joel's sentence. For one thing, that construction makes the omitted "having" clear: "four are unnecessary" could be misread at first glance as "there are four things that are unnecessary," rather than "it's unnecessary to have four things."

On the other hand, Baggins's objection to the omitted hyphen in Frieda's whiny rant is off the mark. You can hyphenate "well-paid writer," but she said "reasonably well paid writer"; hyphenating "well-paid" pulls "well" too far away from "reasonably" (same with "very"). So I would agree with Frieda's punctuation there.
The Post actually used to have a style not to hyphenate "well," since it's an adverb and usually can't be ambiguous; we now do, but only before a noun: "He's a well-paid writer"; "The writer is well paid."

Sheesh, if this stuff doesn't bore your nose right into your keyboard, you may have found your calling.

Posted by: Pat the Perfect | June 28, 2005 7:10 PM | Report abuse

I enjoy grammar, but only when E.B. White is being pithy about it.

Posted by: jw | June 28, 2005 7:15 PM | Report abuse

One wouldn't write "Five are bigger than four." As already noted, a single number is singular, even if it is larger than one.

e.g. the sentence "1600 were my SAT score on my first try" should probably read "1000 were my SAT score . . ."

Posted by: anonymous | June 28, 2005 8:06 PM | Report abuse

to the very first copy editor

your spelling of "very dissapointing" was very disappointing, for a copy editor

Posted by: nomes | June 29, 2005 3:57 AM | Report abuse

I think I'm going to cry.

Posted by: Tom fan | June 29, 2005 9:36 AM | Report abuse

Let it all out.

Posted by: jw | June 29, 2005 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Having lurked on this blog from the beginning, and based on my understanding of the verbal jousting that goes on (and on and on and on... ) in this blog, my sense is that Frieda was trying to be funny, to engage in the sport of Joel-bashing that seems to go on here. To those of you nit-picking, William F. Buckley Jr. wanna-be's, all I can say is... try to get out more.

Posted by: BD | June 29, 2005 10:10 AM | Report abuse

bostonreader has the correct analysis. The elided subjects
of the sentences in question are
"four bullet items" and "two bullet items".
Those subjects are plural, and thus require
"are" rather than "is".

Colin Philips's analysis is much too far a stretch. Occam's Razor applies to linguistics as well as conspiratorial theorizing. Pat the Perfect, in agreement with Colin, is thus also wrong. But they're professionals, so must be forgiven.

-- Stan

Posted by: Stanley Krute | June 29, 2005 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Four would be too many;two would not be enough.
And "Okay." is enough for a sentence all by itself.
So, okay then.

Posted by: Kevin B. - Toledo | June 29, 2005 10:28 AM | Report abuse

While we're twitting:

Pat the P. noted

> "reasonably well paid writer"; hyphenating "well-paid" pulls
> "well" too far away from "reasonably" (same with "very").

My problem with that analysis is that without the hyphenation
of well-paid one could argue that the phrase refers to a
healthy professional scribe.

And, yes, this is a very small club.

-- stan

Posted by: Stanley Krute | June 29, 2005 10:36 AM | Report abuse

You are implying that "A group of" four is...and "a group of" two isn't. The noun "group" is singular and therefore the singular verb works.

If, on the other hand, you were thinking four "items," then you'd have to use the plural form of the verb.

Since you'd just said "three items" in the sentence before that, you should have kept with that structure: "four (items) aren't...."

Either one can work in this case. Especially since it's a weblog.

--Aspiring copyeditor

Posted by: Lori | June 29, 2005 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Aspiring copyeditor:
Alternatively, you could interpret the sentence "You always need three items" as containing an implied "to have," i.e., "You always need to have three items." Then, Joel's next sentence is perfectly consistent; here the Colin Phillips rule kicks in: "[Having] Four is unnecessary, [having] two isn't enough."

(Why am I still here? This question was resolved long ago, right?)

Tom fan
Aspiring something-other-than-a-copyeditor

Posted by: Tom fan | June 29, 2005 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I can't believe some of the commentators above have actually had the gall to contradict PAT THE PERFECT. I really take umbrage at that.

Posted by: Achenfan | June 29, 2005 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Pat the P, Stan just beat me to my point on that hyphenation issue. But I can see where an argument can be made either way. Also, we can all agree that "reasonably" doesn't get hyphenated in with "well-paid" because it ends in "ly."

Now, another matter. Whether is or are, should the original sentence that is the main subject of this thread have a semicolon in it rather than a comma?

Posted by: Baggins | June 29, 2005 12:22 PM | Report abuse

If this were a formal piece of writing, a semicolon would be called for. But this is a blog item, which has a chatty, informal style, so a comma is acceptable.

Posted by: Tom fan | June 29, 2005 12:29 PM | Report abuse

This is a fascinating debate, but I need to go set the VCR - "Eight Are Enough" are on!

Posted by: Jay Levitt | June 29, 2005 1:26 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Tom fan | June 29, 2005 1:35 PM | Report abuse

You were right the first time because what you were really saying was "To have two is . . . to have four is . . " - just shorted to "two is . . four is." "Is" describes the having, not the numbers . . . so there

Posted by: Va | June 29, 2005 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Hooray. I feel joy that my slight comment regarding grammar elicited so many responses. Who cares who is/are right and who is/are wrong? The fact that anyone took the time to discuss grammar in this age of liplocked Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes or Britney Spears or Paris Hilton or any number of worthless news items thrills me no end. Thank you all for responding. And sorry for the typo on "dissapointment". And to think I was the 8th grade spelling champ at St. Theresa's. No hope for me but plenty of hope for America.

Posted by: frieda406 | June 29, 2005 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Frieda! (I want to hang my head in shame.)
No need to apologize for "dissapointing"; that was "copyeditor"'s typo. (Oops . . . I said I wasn't going to correct anyone but Joel -- but I guess that one was already "out there," so it's OK.) And "Very disappointing" is fine as a sentence within the blog context, IMHO. Seems to me there is PLENTY of hope for you. (No hard feelings, huh?)

Posted by: Tom fan | June 29, 2005 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I agree that we do not need any Ms. Thistlebottom's prissy comments on solecisms. And "since" and "because" are reasonably interchangeable in the example cited. How annoying when a little bit of knowledge goes a long way, too long -- as in the case of people who think you cannot split an infinitive (a Latinate "rule" imposed on English). The Chicago Manual of Style features a lively Q. and A. on matters like these.

Posted by: pksyracuse | June 29, 2005 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Stan - THANK YOU for redeeming me and giving me something to gloat about to my husband. After reading my entry last night, he pointed out that nobody had found it relevant enough to comment on. I got my revenge when your feedback popped up! Now, I can't wait for him to get home so I can tell him that he and Frieda have something in common - he was the 3rd grade "Spello" champ, an achievement that convinced him to continue on the path of academic excellence!

Posted by: bostonreader | June 29, 2005 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Stan - THANK YOU for redeeming me and giving me something to gloat about to my husband. After reading my entry last night, he pointed out that nobody had found it relevant enough to comment on. I got my revenge when your feedback popped up! Now, I can't wait for him to get home so I can tell him that he and Frieda have something in common - he was the 3rd grade "Spello" champ, an achievement that convinced him to continue on the path of academic excellence!

Posted by: bostonreader | June 29, 2005 5:20 PM | Report abuse

I'd be curious to know where your academically excellent husband stands on the sentence in question. Does he side with Pat the Perfect and Colin Phillips? Or with Leopold, Stan, and Frieda?

Posted by: Tom fan | June 29, 2005 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Er, I mean "I AM curious . . . ," or "I'd LIKE to know." Not "I'd be curious to know . . . "

Posted by: Tom fan | June 29, 2005 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Tom fan: All I know for sure is that, once I told him that Stan had legitimized my comment, he claimed that he had agreed with me from the start. He has not actually been following this in detail - I have just been keeping him informed of the gist of things, so his stand on Leopold, P the P, et. al. is a bit hazy.
Here are his remarks he just e-mailed me when I told him I had informed the world of his "Spello" victory:
"actually I was Spello champ in 6th grade, and finished 2nd in the spelling bee to ** in 8th grade because the moderator asked me to spell errand and I thought he said arid - as you can see by my memory of the event, it has left an indelible impression on me, resulting in my meteoric rise, vowing never again to not ask for a word to be used in a sentence in such situations i.e. balance risk with caution, ergo calculated risk-taker."

Posted by: bostonreader | June 29, 2005 6:44 PM | Report abuse

For poor Stan who's worried that someone would read "a well paid writer" to mean "a well writer who was paid": Relax, we at The Post do indeed, as I said, hyphenate "well-paid writer." Just not when there's an extra adverb before it to modify "well."
I hope Stan is not also confused when he reads about estate agents who are real, and rights workers who are civil. Not to mention school teachers who are elementary, and room rugs that are living.

Posted by: Pat the Perfect | June 30, 2005 2:21 AM | Report abuse

Don't you just love Pat the Perfect?

Posted by: Tom fan | June 30, 2005 9:03 AM | Report abuse

I certainly do. Gene says she's hot, too.

Posted by: jw | June 30, 2005 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Oh, she is, she is. Positively grammarlicious.

Posted by: Pat the Perfect | July 1, 2005 12:11 AM | Report abuse

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