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There have been debates raging both here and on ELL about this, but the question has, to this point, been focused solely on expletive constructions with compound subjects. This is not intended to ask that very same question.

I'd like to clarify that I'm asking about a much broader range of constructions, and, more specifically, the nature of subjects themselves; and that I'm strongly questioning that the tenet of basic Subject-Verb agreement is variable and therefore not applicable to all sentence constructions.

In other words, I'm asking: how, if ever, can a plural subject be considered or be treated as a singular subject; how can a subject's number vary without rephrasing subject itself; and while there is room for variation in number with mass and/or collective nouns, how can this variation occur with ordinary, countable nouns?

To keep all things parallel, I'm both excluding compound subjects that, separately, agree in number and restricting this to only compound subjects joined by and (or as well as, along with, etc.).

I'm making this distinction to rule out examples that could be based on elision--e.g., there's a bat and there's a ball on the table could potentially be elided to there's a bat and ball on the table.

In each of the following examples, the subject is exactly the same and is plural, which to me suggests that, in each and every set, only 2 and 3 can be technically correct (i.e., in formal English). I think that most would regard the fourth option to be completely incorrect in all examples. And I know that many would say that, in the first (i.e. expletive) set, number one could also be correct. That particular line of reasoning is what I'm inquiring about.

Here are the expletive possibilities I'm starting with:

  1. There is a bat, three balls, and a glove on the table.

  2. There are a bat, three balls, and a glove on the table.

  3. There are three balls, a bat, and a glove on the table.

  4. There is three balls, a bat, and a glove on the table.

Active voice:

  1. A bat, three balls, and a glove is on the table.
  2. A bat, three balls, and a glove are on the table.
  3. A bat, a glove, and three balls are on the table.
  4. A bat, a glove, and three balls is on the table.

Inverted sentences:

  1. On the table is a bat, three balls, and a glove.
  2. On the table are a bat, three balls, and a glove.
  3. On the table are three balls, a bat, and a glove.
  4. On the table is three balls, a bat, and a glove.

Passive voice: (note: As Peter Shor correctly indicates, is lain is not a passive construction.) I specifically used to lie incorrectly intentionally because it's closer to my other sentences semantically. I meant to say The items are/have been lying on the table, rather than The items are/were laid on the table. While the latter, in all bold type is technically the proper passive construction, the former is a closer match to the thoughts being expressed in the other examples:

  1. On the table is lain a bat, three balls, and a glove. On the table is laid a bat, three balls, and a glove.
  2. On the table are lain a bat, three balls, and a glove. On the table have a bat, three balls, and a glove been laid.
  3. On the table are lain three balls, a bat, and a glove. On the table were laid a bat, three balls, and a glove.
  4. On the table is lain/is lying three balls, a bat, and a glove. On the table was laid a bat, three balls, and a glove.

Interrogatives using Subject-Auxiliary inversion:

  1. Is a bat, three balls, and a glove [they] there on the table?
  2. Are a bat, three balls, and a glove [they] there on the table?
  3. Are three balls, a bat, and a glove [they] there on the table?
  4. Is three balls, a bat, and a glove [they] there on the table?

I have fixed these questions to indicate the way in which there functions in expletives and to demonstrate the actual subject based on the Subject-Auxiliary inversion used to form questions.

In all of these examples, the subject is not at all changed, and in only one set (passive) was it necessary for me to change the verb. In fact, in all but the passive set, I've done nothing but remove there from the sentence.

I've always been instructed that while revising the sentence so that the item in the list nearest the verb is in agreement with the verb is preferred, it's perfectly fine to say A bat, three balls (-or- a ball), and a glove are on the table.

Is there something, that I am perhaps missing, that makes the first in each set acceptable? Any source(s) that indicate that syntax dictates number would be particularly appreciated.

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    @John Q Public: But isn't the syntactic function of "subject" in your interrogative examples currently being fulfilled by the dummy pronoun "there"? – F.E. Dec 10 '13 at 3:25
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    John Q Public: Don't the examples in your interrogative set involve the operation of "subject-auxiliary inversion?" -- For instance, in your example "1. Is there a bat, three balls, and a glove on the table?", isn't the subject the word "there"? – F.E. Dec 10 '13 at 3:32
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    @John Q Public: But isn't one of the tests that are used to help identify the subject of a clause that of converting a declarative clause into an interrogative clause? For that conversion switches around the subject and auxiliary verb (i.e., inversion). If what you say is true, then why is the word "there" getting switched around in that "subject-auxiliary inversion"? – F.E. Dec 10 '13 at 3:50
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    "On the table is/are laid …" I expect the past and past participles of lie and lay will converge at some point in English, since everybody gets them confused, but they haven't yet. – Peter Shor Dec 10 '13 at 11:29
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    It should be "they lay" or "they are laid", not "they are lain". Intransitive verbs cannot be put into the passive. See Google Ngram – Peter Shor Dec 11 '13 at 3:36
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The easy answer is, no. None of the first sentences are correct, except for the first sentence in the first set.

This I have seen and heard regularly. The rest of the sets, numbers 2 and 3 are correct.

Edited: 11 December, 9:25pm EST

I have searched and searched, but have not found a single source that will allow for any wiggle room under the Most High Law of Subject-Verb Agreement. There is never considered a subject, so the subject is, of course, the collection of objects on the table, and regardless of how they are listed, it is a plural subject. I have no grammatical foot to stand on, hence Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation applies.

However, in usage, I will plead my case to Psycholinguistics, wherein research has generated theories in abundance about the architecture and mechanisms of sentence comprehension. At what point in reading does information become available to the reader? Issues such as "modular" versus "interactive" processing have caused heated theoretical rifts in the field.

Sentences are read in separate modules with which the reader interacts. but which have limited interaction with each other. While I generally hold to an interactive theory of sentence processing, in this case I am admitting that the modules are not playing well together at all. In an effort to avoid tedious squabbling, one grabs hold of the first module and deals with its behavior, whilst allowing the others to run amok. Admittedly this is poor parenting on the whole, but what's a person to do? One can listen to the cacophony only so long before becoming overwhelmed.

I place some of the blame on the misbehaving modules. Perhaps it is genetic, as a module does not come into a sentence as a tabula rasa. If the modules would cooperate and line up nicely, there would be little problem.

I summarize that the allocation of attention and the misbehavior of the modules makes this an impossible situation, one that defies the Most High Law. I throw myself on the mercy of the Court.

John Q Public is the Judge.

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    If the 1st one in the "expletive" set is okay, then it seems to me that the 1st one in the "interrogative" set should also be okay. imo. :) – F.E. Dec 10 '13 at 4:01
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    @JohnQPublic: Almost no one will disagree with you as to the example "A bat, three balls, and a glove are on the table", for the grammatical subject is that noun phrase "A bat, three balls, and a glove". And this is kinda easy to show, such as by using subject-verb inversion: "Are a bat, three balls, and a glove on the table" -- er, maybe this test ain't so good for this one, but this following test is: "A bat, three balls, and a glove are on the table, aren't they?" which shows a plural verb in the interrogative tag clause, hence a plural subject (usually). – F.E. Dec 10 '13 at 4:21
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    @JohnQPublic: Ah, but your #1 example in your interrogative set, "Is there a bat, three balls, and a glove on the table?" has undergone subject-verb inversion, where the declarative clause version is: "There is a bat, three balls, and a glove on the table." Your own example uses subject-auxiliary inversion with the word "there", hence the word "there" is being treated as the subject of the declarative clause. – F.E. Dec 10 '13 at 4:50
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    @SusanGerard Haha I'd already up-voted you when I wrote that. At the time you were the only one who attempted to answer it (I've since gotten another). Anyway, someone other than me didn't like your answer. I didn't think that a −1 was fair to you. So while I'd love it if you expanded your answer just a tad, I'm afraid I have nothing that I can offer you at the moment. I probably shouldn't have tipped my hand like that, but I may issue a bounty tomorrow. – Giambattista Dec 11 '13 at 3:57
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    LOL Thanks for the answer; I love your sense of humor/wit! It's amazing that, in a grammar forum, all but 2 of the commentators have got some major reading comprehension issues. It's funny that I'm told I can't identify the subject of a clause, yet so many were incapable of identifying the subject of the question (let alone answer said question!). Thank God,though, we've managed to determine the correct conjugations of to lie and to lay (lie, lay, lain, lying and lay, laid, laid, laying respectively), so that we may never irrelevantly misuse them in response to a question not asked ;D – Giambattista Dec 12 '13 at 20:21
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I have noticed, even from my own usage, that there is an enormous tendency to make the verb agree with the plurality of the nearest noun that pertains to the subject, or alternatively what seems to be semantically the subject. I do this all the time, and this is why the first propositions make grammatical sense to a lot of people, or how they put it: 'sound nice'. This also gives rise this kind of phenomenon which I see everywhere.

Google Ngram Viewer - 'majority of * are'

See how the nouns before 'are' are plural, but the head of the noun phrase, "majority", is not?

It's not wrong, it just doesn't agree with some particular grammars. I apologise for not naming them for I'm not familiar with detailed prescriptive grammars, but I take that it is the case due to many others claiming that the second and third propositions are the only correct ones.

Some more examples:

There are a lot of people who believe the second and third propositions are the only correct variants.

The head of the noun phrase here seems to be "lot", but the verb says that this is not the case if we take the idea that the conjugation of English verbs is dependent upon the head of the noun phrase. Either the verb doesn't actually have to agree with the plurality of the head, or there is something else going on here.

Admittedly, that isn't an amazing example for two reasons:

1) "A lot of" (or alternatively "lots of") is at the stage where it is interpreted by many people as a single determiner, but it's just written otherwise.

2) I wouldn't be surprised if someone were to write "There's a lot of people...", re-interpreting there as the subject.

The second bullet brings me to my other point, and that is that this construction is almost always being interpreted as the subject, and the noun phrase after the copula has been re-interpreted as its complement.

Forgive the anecdotal evidence, but I have a friend who consistently swears every time he says "there's" when he believes "there are" is the correct version. I hear him say this at least once or twice every time I see him, and I wonder, how frustrating must this be? Clearly, to him it must sound grammatically right or else he would not be consistently saying it without eventually changing habit after all this time. He's a native speaker, and not an expert language learner, so he's not good at consciously going over what he's saying. His internal understanding of English grammar is definitely in conflict with his prescriptive beliefs.

Just some food for thought.

  • I love the majority of them example. This isn't a matter of right or wrong. There were 4-5 sources cited, which agree with me, on the other questions I've linked--not all are my citations--so it's unlikely that anyone is going to be able to show any of this by a preponderance of evidence (and I appreciate the anecdotal example). I was just interested in perspectives other than my own, and was questioning my own usage as much as anyone else's. I must admit that I find it baffling that many don't recognize that the subject is unchanged in all of my examples, which was the 3rd reason I'd asked. – Giambattista Dec 11 '13 at 0:53
  • I certainly do see that the subject is totally unchanged, and that's what I attempted to explain with my first proposition at the beginning of my answer. I hope it cleared up why it gets written that way a lot. I think it is certainly prescriptive grammar frequently converging with the direction most English dialects are headed, like I described. – Ledda Dec 11 '13 at 1:16
  • I wasn't talking about you. And I was speaking more broadly than this question itself. I'd asked this question because, in the two questions I linked above, (and one of the answers to this question itself) many did not see that connection. And for this questions, it's been suggested by one person that a bat, three balls, and a glove is not the subject and another who felt that the subject wasn't inherently plural. My comment to you was expressed in exasperation, but it was in relief to the fact that you actually were aware that the subject is unchanged. It's hard to be clear with the ... – Giambattista Dec 11 '13 at 1:28
  • ... character limit. Sorry. – Giambattista Dec 11 '13 at 1:29
  • Ah, don't worry. I did pick up on that. Good to see you're looking around for different ideas. Thanks for the feedback. – Ledda Dec 11 '13 at 1:42
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It seems, imo, that one of the problems is that it appears that you are sometimes having difficulty in correctly identifying the subject of a clause. For instance, in the comments of our discussion in this thread, identifying the subject of a passive clause came up.

In those comments, you say that for the passive clause:

  • "Dinner was served by a team of servers."

that the subject is "a team of servers". -- Unfortunately, many people are going to disagree with you.

In that above example, for formal/grammatical subject-verb agreement, the verb "was" is going to agree with the syntactic subject "Dinner", not with the phrase "a team of servers". Your problem can be seen more clearly with this example:

  • "Five boxes were stolen by the thief."

Notice how the verb agrees in number with the syntactic subject "Five boxes", not with the phrase "the thief".

If the verb was to agree with what you call the subject ("the thief"), then the verb ought to be singular:

  • "Five boxes was stolen by the thief." -- ( * )

Here is a copy of the comments we made that led me to this understanding: (the bolding is mine)

@F.E. There is in the subject position for the typical English sentence, but it's never the subject of a expletive. Ever. What is the subject of A postcard was sent by you? How about: Dinner was served by a team of servers? Oh, and, yes, I ain't seen nobody in ten years go in that there house, is technically incorrect, to be polite* – John Q Public 5 hours ago

@JohnQPublic: Okay, in your last example: "Dinner was served by a team of servers" The syntactic function of subject is fulfilled by the noun phrase "Dinner", and this is supported by the 2 tests (subject-aux inversion, and tag clause) that produce "Was dinner served by a team of servers?" and "*Dinner was served by a team of servers, wasn't it?" -- Those 2 tests can be used to show that "there" is the subject in the existential clause. Can you provide any syntactic tests to show that "there" is NOT the subject in the existential clause? – F.E. 5 hours ago

@F.E. The grammatical subjects are actually a team of servers. Dinner is the direct object of was served, and the *implied indirect object is us. A team of servers server [us] dinner. is the active construction. That passive voice is signaled by was. It actually undergoes both *Wh-fronting and Subject-Auxiliary inversion. Who served dinner to us? I've already demonstrated the S-A inversion in the OP, but I can highlight it if you like. – John Q Public 4 hours ago

@JohnQPublic: (quote) The grammatical subjects are actually a team of servers. Dinner is the direct object of was served, and the implied indirect object is us. A team of servers server [us] dinner. is the active construction. That passive voice is signaled by was. It actually undergoes both Wh-fronting and Subject-Auxiliary inversion. Who served dinner to us? (end-quote) Er, no. Even though that example sentence "Dinner was served by a team of servers" is in passive voice, the grammatical subject is still the noun phrase "Dinner". – F.E. 4 hours ago

@F.E. Really? How does dinner serve itself? Who/What performed the action? And who was the recipient of that action. Dinner is not the subject. The subject of *A team of servers served us dinner, is not dinner. It's the people who served dinner who are the subject. – John Q Public 4 hours ago

For you to use the terminology the way you do, that is going to cause a lot of problems. One big problem for you is going to be when you try to explain how subject-verb agreement works, especially when the clause is passive.

.

Another interesting facet came up during our discussion.

When I made the comment,

@JohnQPublic: It seems to me that you might be getting "syntactic functions" and "semantic roles" mixed up. The term "subject" is usually (imo) used on English grammar forums for the syntactic function of subject of a clause. – F.E. 4 hours ago

you replied,

Well, I'm not saying I've never heard it used that way before, but that disagrees with every grammar book I've ever owned, and it's at odds with most of my style guides that I use. We may not be operating with the same definitions, but I'm in no way confused. In my world, a subject is the agent of the action, the verb is the action, and the object is the recipient of that action. To my ear, your terms indicate linguistic function, which doesn't always match grammatical function term-for-term. Now that we've got this all out of the way though, do you have an answer for me? ;) – John Q Public 4 hours ago

Most (if not all) of the traditional/modern grammar usage books that I've seen have used the term "subject" as meaning what I've been calling the "syntactic subject" or just plain "subject". When those books talk about subject-verb agreement, they are talking about agreement between the verb and the syntactic subject.

Perhaps you could show us excerpts from some of those grammar books that support your position on this issue?

(I'm referring to the issue of subject-verb agreement in a passive clause.)

.

If I've misunderstood your position(s) on anything, please do feel free to correct me on it.

  • According to your own answer, the subject must always agree in number with the verb. So then, which of these is correct: A bat, a ball, and a glove are on the table; A bat, a ball, and a glove is on the table; There is a bat, a ball, and a glove on the table; There are a bat, a ball, and a glove on the table; Is a bat, a ball, and a glove there on the table? Are a bat, a ball, and a glove on the table? If the subject and verb, again in your own words, must always agree, then there's only one correct choice. I've already cited sources to my answers; it's your job to source your own. – Giambattista Dec 11 '13 at 0:31
  • I'm sorry, but the sentence Dinner was served to us by a team of servers, is the passive form of A team of servers served us dinner. A team agrees in number with was served. And I'll overlook the fact that dinner is incapable of serving itself. By the way, you've now given two answers, yet have failed to answer the question as it was asked, which was How does removing the expletive there change the subject's number? I humored your mistaken claims about S-A inversion because they strengthened my position, so could you try to answer the question please? – Giambattista Dec 11 '13 at 1:20
  • Perhaps you'd consider detailing what, precisely, you believe a syntactic subject to be. And perhaps, at the same time, you could posit whether A bat, a ball, and a glove are on the table and There are a bat, a ball, and a glove on the table have the same or differing subjects? And perhaps you might like to venture further out on a linguistic cliff by claiming that subject is singular? When I said I've heard it used that way before, I meant I've heard people refer to the word there as being in the subject position in expletive constructions, as in the typical S-V-O syntax. – Giambattista Dec 11 '13 at 2:01
  • @JohnQPublic What you take as subject-hood is what is currently referred to in grammar as a 'thematic role': in particular, the thematic role of 'agent' (- as opposed to 'patient'). According to all traditional and modern grammars, the subject of a typical declarative sentence is the agent, the object the patient. However, in a passivized sentence, for example, the subject is the patient of the sentence (ie the recipient of the action) . Your argument with F.E. here seems to be that the subject is the entity with the thematic role of 'agent'. No published grammar will agree with you here. – Araucaria Jul 3 '14 at 13:22

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