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Consider the following sentences:

The last few years has seen the building of the new church.

and

The last few years have seen the building of the new church.

As a native speaker, both of these sentences "sound" correct to me. Is only one of them correct, are they both correct or is each one only correct in specific circumstances.

This was a question one of my students asked me, so if there is a relevant grammar rule, that would be great.

marked as duplicate by user140086, TimLymington, AndyT, NVZ, phoog Jun 28 '16 at 17:10

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17

Years, being plural, takes the plural form have. But the last few years, being a single span of time, takes the singular form, has.

That's why they both sound okay to you. The first option is generally preferred in formal writing.

  • 1
    Just to clarify, the first option being "The last few years have seen the building of the new church" ? – Tony J Watson Jun 28 '16 at 7:19
  • 2
    @TonyJWatson yes. It seems more normal to me, at least. But if you change the dimension to, say, length, the second option may be preferable: the last few inches of the rope is frayed (because we're not speaking of a collection of distinct inches, each of which is frayed). – phoog Jun 28 '16 at 7:23
3

The rule I've been taught and apply in such situations is that both are correct but have different meaning. It depends on what you wish to convey to the recipient in regard to the relation between the element in the set (in this case - the years).

Consider the following sentences.

Big and tall is a concept of a store.
Big and tall are words constituting its name.

In the first, I regard both as a compound and refer to the joined properties of it. In the second, I treat both as separate elements in a set, referring to the individual properties of each.

Also consider:

United States has large cities.
versus
United States have large cities.

Both are correct and mean the same thing. But substitute large cities for capitol and discover the difference.

United States has a large capitol.
versus
United States have large capitols.

So, the years have something, if you intend to regard them as individual elements that just happen to belong to a common set, whereas the years has something, if you mean to treat them as a whole that happens to consists of parts, the existence of which is of low relevance in the current context.

  • The sentences "United States has large cities", "Unites States have large cities" both sound incorrect to me. Although I have to point out that during our schooling we never studied any grammar and instead just read thousands of books and wrote hundreds of essays. – Tony J Watson Jun 29 '16 at 4:35
  • @TonyJWatson maybe it sounds "off" because United States should have the article. It's The United States, or the US; and cities are generally large by definition otherwise they would be called towns, but redundancy in speech is natural and acceptable. – Mari-Lou A Jun 29 '16 at 5:06
  • "The United States has large cities." - sounds correct "The United States have large cities" - sounds incorrect, and asking around the room no-one else thinks the second sounds correct either. Could it be one of those things where it is technically correct but no-one would ever write it? – Tony J Watson Jun 29 '16 at 6:27
  • @TonyJWatson Perhaps the second version (US have) sounds wrong because you're thinking about the country US, while it's meant to convey the notion that a bunch of administrative regions (say, Washington, Texas and California) have each a set of cities that can be regarded as large? Does "France, UK and Germany have large cities" sound incorrect in your ears as well? – Konrad Viltersten Jun 30 '16 at 5:59
  • Ah yes, I see your point. France, UK and Germany have large cities sounds correct. – Tony J Watson Jun 30 '16 at 9:22

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