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Subject-Verb Agreement, wondering which is correct in the following?

Our years of grammar experience have / has taught us...

Assuming "have" is correct. And that phrase "of grammar experience" doesn't determine. But I'm confused now after having read that plural "years" is thought to be singular because "years" is a measurement, I believe was the argument, here:

Measurements Generally a number, fraction, or quantity of things is considered singular if considered as a mass (ten gallons is enough) and plural if considered as separate units (ten dishfuls were slowly doled out). Sums of money, time, distances, and other similar measurements are often singular (Only years of dedication earns a climber the right to stand on such a peak).

I realize there are somewhat similar questions already on your site but I can't find one that solves completely. There are many opinions but not many final words. Thanks

  • You are quite right to query this one. Though 'Six miles is too far for the little ones to walk' uses the normal notional agreement hereabouts, I'd say that this particular example just sounds outlandish if the usual rule is followed. I'd use 'have' here in spite of the illogicality and inconsistency. But I'd revert to the usual notional agreement with 'Over 25 years in the fast-food business has taught us'. Perhaps it's because 'Working' is easily recovered in the latter example. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 19 '15 at 20:41
  • "Our...grammar experience has taught us...". 'Have' sounds wrong to me (otherwise the 'tail' is wagging the dog). – Dan Nov 19 '15 at 21:16
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The choice of verb number depends on whether the sense is taken from years as one extent of time or as many individual years. For the first consider this description of an Italian city:

Ironically therefore, the years of neglect is also the very reason why Sulmona is now one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, a rare and precious treasure of history, culture and tradition in a world where so much has changed for the worst.

Here, the sense of years is that of an era. Contrast this with this passage from Report of the Government of Madras on the Indian Pearl Fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar by James Hornell:

In the case of the other pars [islets] of the group the years of neglect are 1888 to 1890, 1892, 1893, 1898, 1900 and 1901, eight years in all.

In this case, the years are individually considered, so the word has a plural sense and thus takes a plural verb.

  • Interesting comparison. Isn't your second example a special case (i.e. enumerating the years) ? You are not treating the 'years' as a time marker (this period of time...), you are (simply) listing them. – Dan Nov 19 '15 at 21:17
  • @Dan I'd say it was the other case, in which the years are considered individually instead of as a period of time. Hornell could well have written, "The years of neglect during the last quarter of the century are responsible for the patchy records." As you can see by the original list, the years don't form a contiguous period of time. – deadrat Nov 19 '15 at 21:47
  • I guess the decision singular/plural depends upon whether the plural is being treated as a mass noun or not (toast!). – Dan Nov 19 '15 at 22:08
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I think it's one of those cases where both are used and both can be considered correct usage, but one will often be more elegant than the other, depending on the specific construction:

Fifteen years at the top have (has) made Jim a lot of money.

Fifteen years as a top player mean (means) that Jim can retire well satisfied.

  • "(A period of) fifteen years ... has / mean ...". – Dan Nov 19 '15 at 21:19
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It seems straightforward to me: in examples like your one, the verb must agree with the head noun of the subject. The head of the NP subject here is the plural "Our years", so the verb must also be plural. It's not just the "grammar experience" that has taught us, it's the years of that grammar experience. So plural is the only option.

  • Then how do you analyze sentences like "Six years is a long time"? Do you deny that they are grammatical? – sumelic Nov 19 '15 at 23:35
  • sumelic. I focused solely on the OP's first example, and chose not to go into the grammar of the so-called 'measure expressions' like for example "Another three eggs is all we need", and "Ten days is a long time" which are perfectly grammatical. With hindsight, I'm inclined to think I should have dealt with examples like those too. – BillJ Nov 20 '15 at 9:03

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