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I am copy-editing a manuscript in which the author has written the following sentence:

Rank upon rank of theologians has envisioned God the Father as the omniscient and omnipotent one.

"Rank upon rank" suggests plurality, so my instinct is to change "has" to "have". Am I right?

Alternatively, I'm tempted to suggest a more invasive change to avoid the awkwardness altogether. I suspect, however, that I personally do not understand how to handle countable and uncountable nouns with verbs, and I don't want to push this author unfairly toward a less creative sentence in the meantime.

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3 Answers 3

In "Rank upon rank of theologians" the subject is "theologians", not "rank", and the whole noun phrase acts like a plural, so the verb should be "have".

Examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

  • Amid the destruction in places like Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston, where row upon row of houses were scoured from the landscape ... — Associated Press, 2008.

  • On this particular day, their services were desperately needed in Maine, where mile upon mile of wild blueberries were in bloom, just waiting to be pollinated. — SPOKEN, 2008.

  • RANK UPON RANK OF 400-FOOT SANDSTONE TOWERS DOMINATE THE CENTRAL THIRD OF SAND TANK CANYON... — Backpacker, 2007.

  • Layer upon layer of limestone lie so close to the surface that the grasses absorb calcium... — Southern Living, 2003.

    Note how limestone isn't even plural here.

  • The small cemetery takes on a magical, cathedral-like beauty as row upon row of candles are lit, opposite. — Americas, 1995.

Likewise for after:

  • Thousands of zebras upholster the valley below. Wave after wave of them kick up pink dust in the last flush of daylight. — Smithsonian, 2011.

  • Wave after wave of young people come to my house and I keep telling them... — New York Times, 1999.

  • ... tiny McClellanville was almost obliterated, and mile after mile of foot-thick pine trees were snapped off like so many toothpicks in the Francis Marion National Forest...  — Saturday Evening Post, 1990.

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To put this in perspective, I will add that so far I was able to find exactly one instance of the verb getting singular agreement ("Block after block of crumbling and burned-out homes and businesses has literally become an urban hunting preserve" — and it actually sounds off to me). That is, we're not talking 8 vs. 100 here, we're talking 8 vs. 1 (after going through 500+ cites in total). This comes as no surprise, seeing how other similar phrases ("a lot of", "a number of", "a total of",..) get plural agreement as well, as has been covered in detail elsewhere on this site. –  RegDwigнt Nov 7 '12 at 21:09
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I'd be pretty certain that by strict grammar, the subject is rank [upon rank], and that of theologians is just an "adjectival" modifier that happens to include a (plural) noun. The reason many of us want to treat it as plural is partly because we know there are actually multiple ranks piling up there, and partly that we know "a rank" of anything is actually made up of lots of some smaller unit anyway. In short, we use the plural for reasons of semantics, not grammar. –  FumbleFingers Nov 7 '12 at 21:28
    
@FumbleFingers Well, it's not the rank or the [rank upon rank] that "has envisioned God...". So I'm not sure why "rank" should be the subject of the sentence. "rank upon rank of" is just a modifier for "theologians". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Nov 7 '12 at 21:31
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I agree with @Andrew Leach's observation; by using the word "rank" you are setting the consideration of the sentence to one rank at a time, so the verb form should be singular despite its adjacency to the plural "theologians".

Others will disagree, and say that the verb should agree with "theologians", or that "X upon X" is implicitly plural. Either way, some significant portion of the reading population may find the sentence a bit jarring.

To make the agreement easier, you could change to

Ranks upon ranks of theologians have envisioned ...

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I don't think so - the subject is the first X in 'X upon X', the phrase 'upon X' modifying the first term. –  StoneyB Nov 7 '12 at 20:22
    
@StoneyB: That may be the story according to some particular grammar book, or your personal preferences, but I'd be prepared to bet in practice the majority adopt Hellion's line. There's a problem either way round, but going for agreement between nearest neighbours is the lesser of two evils. –  FumbleFingers Nov 7 '12 at 21:21
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Rank upon rank is considering only one rank at a time. Compare with every rank which might also connote plurality, but which takes a singular verb for the same reason: each rank is identical.

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But a rank doesn't envision anything: only theologians can do that. –  TimLymington Nov 7 '12 at 21:22
    
It's a compound construction - the sentence is only considering a single rank, strictly, but the structure is a rank of theologians. That is certainly not plural. –  Iain Hallam Nov 10 '12 at 16:25
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