I have two questions about the clause two thirds of the book deals with WWII:

i) how do we analyse the subject of this clause from a syntactic point of view? I'd analyse it as a NP, with the following internal structure: two (determiner [numeral]) thirds (head [noun]) of the book (postmodifier [PP]). Is this correct, or should it be analysed in a different way, and in that case, how?

ii) if the analysis suggested in (i) is correct, then why do we have the singular form on the verb (deals)?


1 Answer 1


There are two things we need to consider before we start.

Firstly, numbers are a human construct. So there is no"natural" right answer as to whether something is singular or plural. You just have to follow the rules of your particular language.

Secondly, the rules in English can be traced back to a time when the understanding of number was restricted to what they called "natural numbers", that is 1, 2, 3, etc. We now accept 2/3 as a number and we therefore regard the NP as having a value of 2/3 on semantic grounds. This then gives us the problem of whether it is singular or plural, and there is no answer because it became a number after the rules of grammar were established. It is often regarded as singular or copying from why you have 2/3 of, so plural if you are talking about something countable. In short there is no right answer but in my view you have to look at the semantics not the grammar.

  • Thank you David Robinson! I'm not sure I quite understand your answer though... are you saying that the head of the subject phrase is "two thirds" as a unit, and that we could consider this as singular from a semantic point of view, and that that's why we have a singular verb? No... that's not what you mean – is it?
    – Hannah
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 7:29
  • Even if the answer can be debated, surely there is a generally accepted syntactic analysis of this kind of phrase?
    – Hannah
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 7:33
  • @hannah I am no expert at syntactic analysis but I have no reason to think you are wrong. In particular I think you cannot use the verb form as evidence as the form is determined either by semantics, or, most likely in practice, by a muddled mixture of semantics and syntactics. The problem is that 2/3 is a number that was invented after the rules of grammar were laid down. This gives us two problems. Firstly no one knows if this number is singular or plural. Secondly no one is sure if you should treat it grammatically as a single number or if you should analyse it syntactically. Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 16:13
  • This is new grammar. Shakespeare would not have said "⅔ of the deals" but "2 deals out of 3". He would not have said "1½ miles" but "a mile and a half". Compare this with numbers that have been accepted as numbers for longer. "101" is accepted as a number and is accepted as plural but this has nothing to do with the syntactic analysis of the phrase "one hundred and one". So the net result is that the grammar is still evolving but syntactics does not have much to do with it. Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 16:25
  • Thanks again – I see what you mean now :) And of course you're right; much of language is "a muddled mixture of semantics and syntactics". I still have a hard time believing that there is no generally agreed-upon way of parsing phrases like this though – I mean, it's not like we're dealing with a specific, idiosyncratic construction here; fractions constitute a whole category of expressions that we should be able to generalise over... So, if there's anyone else out there who's more into syntax, who could help me, I'd be really grateful.
    – Hannah
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 21:17

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