Without having gone through what I have this year, I could not possible grasp the depth of love, gratitude, and individuality that currently overwhelm/overwhelms me.

I initially had overwhelm, but then had a friend go over the five-paragraph excerpt that this sentence was included in, and she claims it should be overwhelms. I see where she's coming from, but was wondering if somebody could persuade me fully, because right now I'm not so sure which sounds better. I suppose the question really boils down to whether it is the depth of the noun trio (singular) or the trio of nouns themselves (plural) that is doing the overwhelming?

  • 1
    I would solve this problem by changing depth to depths and using overwhelm in the plural. – phoog Dec 21 '15 at 21:46
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    "Overwhelms" is correct, and sounds better than most of the suggested changes. – Hot Licks Dec 21 '15 at 21:53
  • But to keep the metaphor up: I could not possible fathom the depth... – Jim Dec 21 '15 at 22:50
  • Does 'individuality' make sense alongside 'love' and 'gratitude'? – Edwin Ashworth Dec 21 '15 at 23:13

You're right about what the question boils down to (whether it's the "depth" or the list of nouns doing the overwhelming), but it is "depth" and therefore "overwhelms".

Cutting out all the extra-informational bits of the sentences leaves

"The depth ____ [overwhelm/overwhelms] me."

In that form, we can see that it's similar to saying

"The bundle of sticks ___ [is/are] lying in front of the fireplace".

We see that it should be "is", because the subject of the sentence is "bundle" and "of sticks" is just modifying the subject.

With your sentence, "depth" is the subject"; "love", etc. is just giving us more information and is not the subject. Therefore, the verb should apply to "depth".

  • It's not like a bundle of sticks; it's more like the bundle of sticks, twigs and branches, if you want to use that analogy. – anongoodnurse Dec 21 '15 at 21:43
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    You're right, but at the same time, I was trying to simplify for the sake of clarity; "sticks" is an analogy for "love, gratitude, and individuality" because both are 'plural'. The question asker has stated that they realize "love, etc." is plural, so I'm just offering another plural but in a simpler sentence to hopefully make things clear. (Although it might not have worked.) – Yee-Lum Dec 21 '15 at 21:50
  • @medica - It's still just one bundle. – Hot Licks Dec 21 '15 at 21:52
  • Fair enough. Language does have nuance, though. – anongoodnurse Dec 21 '15 at 21:55

Short answer: As you noted in your question, it depends on what is overwhelming you, and neither interpretation is "wrong." Is it the depth (degree) of emotion, or the emotions themselves?

The least controversial analysis is to strip the modifier. That is, don't let the prepositional phrase (of love, gratitude, and individuality) fool you. The subject-verb agreement depends on the base noun. So you have:

...I could not possibly grasp the depth...that currently overwhelms me.

The base noun is singular. The complex adjectival prepositional phrase that completes the noun phrase is of no import.

The above is true if you mean:

I could not possibly grasp the depth (of love, gratitude, and individuality) (that currently overwhelms me).

But it would be valid to suppose the semantics are:

I could not possibly grasp the depth (of (love, gratitude, and individuality) (that currently overwhelm me)).

In other words, if the phrase that currently overwhelm me is meant to refer to the trio of attributes, then that whole phrase becomes part of the prepositional phrase (beginning with of), and hence the verb should be plural.

This is at least as valid an interpretation as the first option, and frankly sounds more natural to my (AmE) ear.

For reference, see point 5 at this OWL link.

  • "Now that I think about it, this is at least as valid an interpretation, and frankly sounds more natural." This. – anongoodnurse Dec 21 '15 at 21:44
  • @medica Sorry, not sure that I understand what you are saying. However, I have reworded my response for clarity. – Nonnal Dec 21 '15 at 21:50

It could be either, depending on how you read the sentence, so you're both correct.

Remove the prepositional phrase ("of love, gratitude, and individuality"); you're left with "...the depth that overwhelms me. (I overwhelm, you overwhelm, he/she/it overwhelms...etc. For *overwhelm, you need a substitute for they. "Depth" isn't it.

However, if you choose to read it as three separate nouns that overwhelm, meaning 1. the depth of love, 2. the gratitude, and 3. the individuality (???), then overwhelm is fine.

But as an AmE speaker, I would think that it's the depth of those traits that causes the flood of emotion. I'd go with overwhelms.

  • You'd have to change it to "depths" to make "overwhelm" be correct. – Hot Licks Dec 21 '15 at 21:54

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