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I was caught by the following message when I was listening to ABC News broadcasted on October 25th:

“Senate Republicans shut down a Democratic filibuster today, and Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court nomination setting up a final vote for tomorrow. “Democrats knew there is little to prevent Barrett nomination from moving forward.” “On this vote the Aye is 51, the Nay is a 48.

Still Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer protesting: “This is about Senate majority deciding to break faith with the American people.”

I don’t know who was reading this portion of the announcement of the result of Senate voting on confirmation of Judge Amy Barret's inauguration as Supreme Court Judge. It was a woman’s voice.

I puzzled if I misheard the paragraph in question for “the ayes are 51, the nays are 48.” because the number of votes is plural. So, I asked several of my English language enthusiast colleagues to hear the recorded disk. All of them heard the same way as I heard.

Is “(The) Aye is 51, (the) Nay is 48,” grammatically correct? Why it’s not “Ayes are 51, Nays are 48”?

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  • Express a vote with “Aye” and “Nay” is typical of voice vote. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice_vote. Aye and Nay are countable but I think the expression you heard is the short for “Aye is (at the level of) 51” or similar expressions.
    – user 66974
    Nov 2, 2020 at 7:44
  • @user121863. I heard the word, ‘voice vote' for the first time. It’s a learning. But I wonder how you can count up or decide exact number of Ayes and Nays when the members of lawmakers say it with one accord. Nov 2, 2020 at 8:33
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    If you google "the aye is" + "the nay is", other than for this question, there is no relevant token. But googling "the eyes are" + "the nays are", one sees over 22 000 hits reported. Of the first 10, one is n/a (this question) and the other 9 are relevant. I'd say you've spotted an aberration, a non-standard usage. Although the first comment here gives a partial justification (a deletion), I'd say the use of the singular form here is best forgotten and avoided. In the UK, for instance, you never hear "The aye have it." Nov 2, 2020 at 11:58
  • It's just (pseudo) quaint language.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 2, 2020 at 12:22

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The syntax you heard could be construed as the result of an elision, for example of "vote" or "vote count":

The aye [vote count] is 51; the nay [vote count] is 48.

That elision, in turn, may have been prompted by the reading of an electronic display. Hypothetically, that is, the Senate Legislative Information System may provide the Secretary of the Senate with a display showing the number of "aye" and "nay" buttons pressed by senators when voting. The Secretary (or clerk) may then read the electronic display out loud. The counts may even be labeled "Aye" and "Nay" on the electronic display, thus reinforcing the elision and so the use of singular syntax.

For background procedural information, see "Roll Call Votes by the U.S. Congress"; see also "Quorum and Vote" in "Procedures of the United States Congress".

More generally, however, underlying linguistic processes condition fluent speaker understanding of singular syntax and the corresponding absence of plurality markers for what would ordinarily be countable nouns. Those processes are described in detail in, for example, the 1980 paper "Nouns and Countability", by Keith Allan. The abstract of his paper provides an adequate summary:

The customary disjunctive marking of lexical entries for English nouns as [± countable] does not match the fact that the majority can be used both countably and uncountably in different NP [noun phrase, ed.] environments: this binary opposition is characteristic not of the nouns, but of the NP's which they head. Nevertheless, nouns do have countability preferences; some enter countable environments more readily than others.

Thus, although I hesitated a bit over the syntax you encountered, I did not, finally, register it as incorrect or nonstandard. The nouns 'aye' and 'nay' appeared in an environment that enabled me to readily construe them as uncountable despite their "countability preferences".

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