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I am having some trouble coming up with a natural-sounding expression whilst still ensuring conformity to the rule of Subject-verb agreement. At the centre of my concern is the phrase "first-two days" when strictly used with a dummy subject:

1) It was a tough first-two days. (Not in agreement in number)

2) It was a tough first-two-day. (Unsure about the appropriateness of a hyphenated compound word)

3) They were tough first-two days. (Grammatically sound but slightly jarring when spoken)

For the reasons in the brackets, none of the three is particularly desirable to me. But then again, my reasoning could be mistaken, so please shed some light on this.

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+50

The key is that "two days" is a measure and measures are treated as singular.

That is why your option 1 works as the subject, verb, and predicate are in agreement. However I do not believe it needs a hyphen


X was Y, or X were Y ?

Can a singular be a plural? Not often. X and Y are either both singular or both plural.

John was a champion, not John were champions.

If we choose "It" we must choose "was"


Next ... do we need an "a"?

If you chose a singular subject "it" you're going to compare it to something singular.

  • It was a X : if X is a noun,
  • It was X : if X is an adjective

Why can "two days" be singular?

Well a "dozen" is a singular... it is a unit.

but, you might say "Two heads" are better than one. .... there "two x" is plural if X are thing(s), not a distance or measurement.

"Two days" as used in the predicate is singular because "two days" is a measure (measuring a span of time). That lets "two days" agree with "it".

~ a ~ measure.. Measures are treated as singular nouns so you would us an "a". Other examples:

4 hours is a long time to wait

The height difference between Mary and Jan ~is~ (not are) two inches.

Tommy is two heads taller than Lisa (haha, if you use 'heads' as a measure it changes things from the plural "two head" used as a subject!)

"tough" and "first" are simply adjectives referring to the span "it/two days".

With that explanation option 1) , the way we commonly hear it, is indeed grammatically sound - however the hyphen is not needed as "two days" is the measure, and 'first' is an adjective modifying the measure.

It was a tough first two days

~

Option 3) of yours does also work. It refers to "days" as individual time periods ! A plural "they" , the plural conjugated "to be" as "were" and "two days" here meaning two individual days.

They were tough first-two days.

That would mean something ever so slightly different.. ~each~ day was tough. Also, it may emphasize that the "day" as in the part of the day when the sun was up, were the tough parts rather than the 24 hour meaning.

The "first-two" as an adjective feels awkward in this plural and I'd be open for more input on the use of the hyphen. Without a compound adjective this 3rd choice isn't awkward at all: "They were tough first days." isn't awkward.

  • Thank you for a detailed answer, but may I point out you could write it much simpler: '2 days is a span' as you put it could perhaps be more accurately generalised as '2 days is a measure of time' -- and as you have already noted, it is a general convention that measures are treated as singular for most purposes: 1000 litres was the maximum this tanker could take/ 10 kilos is a lot to lose in just a week/ it was a hectic first 2 minutes (as in rugby union) -- it's because measures are treated as singular that we choose it was here, so OP needs 'it was' in this sentence! – English Student Jun 2 '17 at 8:43
  • @EnglishStudent thanks I know that my answer is a bit wordy and has superfluous parts. I'll highlight what you suggest and use the term "measure" – Tom22 Jun 2 '17 at 17:40
  • I have similarly composed long answers myself while groping for some concept or otherwise struggling to explain my meaning. I tend to read it over many times imagining myself as a third-party reader and try to edit it to make perfect sense. Compared to that, it is too easy to look from outside upon another person's answer and see how I would improve it in your place! Thanks a lot. You are one of the most tolerant and understanding members at EL& U. – English Student Jun 2 '17 at 17:50
  • @EnglishStudent thank you for the compliment and understanding – Tom22 Jun 2 '17 at 18:00
  • You are most welcome. Everyone has their own personality, but I appreciate the many members like you with flexible, pleasant and helpful temperaments all the more because I have encountered many an intolerant or rigid mind, and at least one vitriolic tongue/pen on this website! – English Student Jun 2 '17 at 18:09
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Logical and grammatical number don't have to agree in English. See for example Are collective nouns always plural, or are certain ones singular? and other questions under the [grammatical-number] tag.

A dummy subject is still a subject, and your "it" could stand for either a plural ("my first two days at the company were a tough first two days") or a singular ("the induction course was a tough first two days", "that period of time was a tough first two days"). I doubt you'd have a problem with the latter. I'd drop the hyphen but otherwise go with this option -- "It was a tough first two days" seems perfectly natural spoken or written English (to these British ears)

The second example is (as you note yourself) a bit odd -- English doesn't have a compound noun "two-day" (though you do see it as an adjective), and it looks like that's what you're trying to use.

The third example also sounds unnatural. A simple "the first two days were tough" would suffice if you wanted to stick with a plural throughout. "They were a tough first few days" is also perfectly sensible and keeps the S-V agreement.

"They were tough, the first two days" works, but is a little poetic to some ears (the structure makes me think of Larkin: This be the verse).

  • 1
    Very nice. My U.S. ears are fine with everything here. // Your last paragraph: For me, a slightly different version of this, "They were tough, those first two days," would be fine, and not poetic. – aparente001 May 31 '17 at 4:18
  • @aparente001 thank you. I've toned down that sentence given your additional viewpoint. – Chris H May 31 '17 at 5:51
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    They were a tough first two days sounds fine to me, to go along with your point that the subject could be singular or plural. "They were tough, the first two days" works, sure, but no one would say that. – Unrelated May 31 '17 at 6:03
  • Thanks. Just to confirm my understanding. Is 'the first two days' singular or plural? Are you saying that it is a collective noun and a singular entity? Otherwise how could it take the indefinite article? – JUNCINATOR May 31 '17 at 9:47

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