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I am reading The White Spider, a book on mountain climbing, and I got hung up on this passage which sounded wrong, although I can see why it isn't...

Herman couldn't be expected to hear him in that raging tempest; nor could he have come down a hundred feet of hard-won ground again, after such a struggle to climb them."

"Them" is agreeing with "a hundred feet" in this sentence, but would it be wrong to replace "them" with "it" because 100 feet represents a unit of distance more than it does individual feet? Or would "it" be preferable on the grounds that the entire noun phrase "a hundred feet of hard-won ground" should be considered the unit? Or is it simply correct as is?

The reason it stands out to me is because I commonly hear runners in conversations where the following is said:

"How far did you run today?"

"I ran about 20 miles."

"How long did it take you to run it?"

"About three hours."

In this case, 20 miles represents "the run," a single event taking three hours. The 100-foot descent seems more meaningful as a unit and not a collection of feet.

On the contrary, I would never use this logic if I were talking about eating sausage links at dinner.

"I ate nine sausage links."

"How long did it take you to eat them?"

Is it just lazy English to mistake the numerical agreement, or does it come down to the way we contextualize units?

The post script is that the book, The White Spider is translated from German.

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There's no grammatical issue or even one of language in general. It's a literary question good for writersSE. However, I'm answering it, so as to clarify the point. @Andrew has already drawn attention to this. See my answer. –  Kris Dec 1 '12 at 9:35

3 Answers 3

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The writer makes a hundred feet plural to emphasise that each individual foot was a struggle. It's not a single stretch of 100 feet; it's a hundred tiny journeys which have been struggled through and which would need to be undone.

The rest of the question is entirely right: when you are considering a single distance, or a single amount of money, then use a singular verb.

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Using the plural pronoun is to subtly direct the reference to "a hundred feet."

It's a literary technique to create the required effect of 'a large and strenuous effort' than what just plain 'ground' would have.

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In a construct like "... a hundred feet of hard-won ground ... it/them", either the singular or the plural is correct. You could use the singular referring back to "ground", or the plural referring back to "feet". Either is justifiable grammatically and logically.

The 20-mile run example is a little tricker. If you say, "Today I made a 20-mile run. I ran it/them in only 6 hours", I think the technically-correct pronoun is "it" because the only noun to refer back to is "run", "20-mile" being an adjective construction. But if you said "them" meaning the "miles", I think only the most rigid grammarian would call that wrong. On the other hand, if you say, "Today I ran 20 miles. I ran it in only 6 hours", arguably there is no singular noun for the "it" to refer to. Still, your meaning is clear, and there is something of an implied "the run" in there. So I'd say it's technically wrong to use a singular but a very minor offense.

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I think it' the same as saying "Today I spent a thousand dollars. A thousand dollars is a lot of money". The question is "What'd you spend it on?", not what'd you spend them on?". The money is considered a collective non-count noun phrase. You're right that there's no singular noun for it to refer to in that "Today I ran 20 miles" sentence, but the noun phrase "20 miles" is just like "$1K", a singular non-count block of distance. "The test takes 5 hours!" "Wow! Five hours is a long time!" –  user21497 Nov 30 '12 at 15:57

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