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In the expression a "winner-take-all society", I'm interested in the status of the verb: is it an infinitive or an imperative? As a related question, would it look odd to an anglophone if I wrote "a-winner-takes-all society" ? I would be quite grateful if, as a bonus, a user told me the origin of this metaphor: poker or some other game perhaps?

Edit I now realize, following Kosmonaut's comment, that there are several similar constructions in English: a know-it-all, a ne'er-do-well. And interestingly also in French: "un vaurien" and in German "Ein Taugenichts".

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Dear Peter, could you please somehow resuscitate your comment, which was killed with the answer it related to. It was a pleasant omen that on my very first visit on this site one of my queries was answered by a friend from elsewhere... –  Georges Elencwajg May 9 '11 at 20:15
    
I'll try. It'll be a while before I can get to it, though. –  Peter Shor May 9 '11 at 20:25
    
It's a dog-eat-dog world. –  Kosmonaut May 9 '11 at 21:39
    
Wow, fantastic, Kosmonaut! –  Georges Elencwajg May 9 '11 at 22:27
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

As I see it, there are four questions here, and I certainly cannot answer them all.

  1. Which is the correct hyphenated adjectival phrase: winner-take-all society or winner-takes-all society?
  2. If winner-take-all is correct, why doesn't the verb have to agree with the subject?
  3. What is the verb form called in this construction?
  4. What is the origin of this phrase?

To my ear, both winner-take-all society and winner-takes-all society sound fine.

Looking at Google Ngrams, we find: enter image description here.

So winner-take-all has historically been ahead, but winner-takes-all is rapidly catching up. Note that we cannot compare the phrases winner take all with winner takes all using Google Ngrams, because then we would get constructions like ... and the winner takes all!, which are not adjectival phrases. However, I searched in Google books for the phrase with the indefinite article, a winner take/takes all, and virtually all the hits are adjectival phrases.

The only similar construction in adjectival phrases I can think of is dog-eat-dog. Here the construction is definitely dog-eat-dog (confirmed by Google Ngrams, although dog-eats-dog is occasionally used), and the verb also does not agree with the subject.

So I conclude that in similar adjectival phrases (can anybody think of any others?) the verb does not have to agree with the subject, but I am baffled as to what mood/tense the verb is. In dog-eat-dog world it is clearly not the imperative (it's not a command). The infinitive and subjunctive don't seem likely, either.

UPDATE: There's also buyer-beware as in buyer-beware laws. Here, the verb is definitely in the subjunctive, while Henry in his answer has made a pretty good case for the verb in dog-eat-dog being the infinitive. The adjectival phrase winner-take-all may have originally been applied to the American electoral system. However, Google books comes up with a number of apparently earlier instances of bets where everybody contributes some amount, and "winner take all." If this was the origin, it is also the subjunctive, as it would presumably have been shortened from a phrase such as Let the winner take all.

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Thanks a lot for your answer, Peter: as I wrote above, it's great to meet a friend on my first visit to this site. It's reassuring for a foreigner to hear that an anglophone too is baffled by the mood of the verb in this expression: I appreciate your candidness.I am sure you don't care about the sillyness, but I can't upvote you for lack of reputation. Reminds me of the suspicion toward strangers riding into a town in the Far-West in the films of my childhood... –  Georges Elencwajg May 9 '11 at 22:54
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Interestingly, COCA results show 139 to 11 in favor of "winner-take-all" vs "winner-takes-all" for American English since 1990. –  nohat May 10 '11 at 1:14
    
(also, I would be remiss if I did not point out that imperative, infinitive, and subjunctive are not "tenses") –  nohat May 10 '11 at 1:16
    
@nohat: you are quite right. I rewrote it. And I also pointed out that winner take all is likely the subjunctive. –  Peter Shor May 10 '11 at 2:11
    
Ah, I can upvote you now ! –  Georges Elencwajg May 10 '11 at 14:03
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Personally I would say (note hyphens and verb)

a winner-takes-all society

since you should not use a hyphen after the article and winner-takes-all is acting as an adjective (hence the hyphens) so does not need a hyphen to the noun. I would also use takes rather than take, as it is clearly the description of a competition where a single winner takes all of the stakes. In this case, takes is a normal 3rd person singular verb.

I know other variants exist, including a book, but apart from winners-take-all I would regard them as being wrong.

Added: @Kosmonaut's comment It's a dog-eat-dog world is interesting, though there seems to be some debate over the timing of its origin: 1500s here, 1850s here and 1931 here. Word Origins gives The Times in 1789 saying "As it is an established fact, that sharper will not rob sharper, nor dog eat dog", suggesting that dog eat dog is a set-phrase shortening of dog will eat dog or dog does eat dog, making eat an infinitive.

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Ah yes, you are absolutely right: no hyphen before society. I'll edit that confusing mistake of mine. However I can't agree with you that *winner-take-all" is wrong.The point of my question is precisely that in the adjectival phrase under scrutiny the verb is not in the third person of the indicative . I am reading the book by Frank and Cook (which elicited my question) and I can assure you that the authors' command of the syntax of English would prevent them from making such a trivial error. Googling the expression shows empirical evidence that the version without "s" is quite common. –  Georges Elencwajg May 9 '11 at 21:08
    
Google Books finds a 1749 quote, where Gentleman's Magazine says: "Cornix cornici nunquam perfodit ocellum, // Crow ne'er with crow in rude encounter met, // nor will dog eat dog. So "dog will not eat dog" seems to be a saying even this early. –  Peter Shor May 9 '11 at 22:47
    
Thank you for your addition, Henry. So the trail leads to an infinitive: interesting. By the way, the spelling in your second reference "It is ill wakyng of a sleapyng dogge" really has class! –  Georges Elencwajg May 9 '11 at 23:01
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