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If I say :

I have a pair of shoes that is odd,

the meaning would be that there was something odd about the pair. Perhaps the shoes are bright green with pink spots.

But if I say :

I have a pair of shoes that are odd,

the meaning would be that these are odd shoes and are not a pair at all.

Just saying :

I have an odd pair of shoes ,

is ambiguous.

I need the one of the first two statements to be clear as to the meaning.

Is there a name for this division of meaning by choosing singular and plural ?

Are there any other examples of this peculiarity in the English language ?


In the first statement, the concept seems to me to associate 'pair' with 'is', but in the second the concept of association is between 'shoes' and 'are'.

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  • Why do you think the distinction between 'is' and 'are' is unclear? Both of your first sentences can only be interpreted in the one (right) way, right?
    – Joachim
    Dec 2 '21 at 11:05
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    'Pair', like 'couple', can take singular or plural verb agreement; advocates of notional agreement will opt for the more obvious choice ('the pair were inseparable in the first years of their marriage' // 'the pair was beaten by Jill's full house'. //// 'Pair' has interrelated subsenses ('displays polysemy'), some of which virtually force either singular or plural agreement, others of which can be used with either singular or plural agreement merely according to style choice. Dec 2 '21 at 11:23
  • I wonder if your second sentence, "I have a pair of shoes that are odd," is more about the ambiguity of odd rather than is versus are.
    – rajah9
    Dec 2 '21 at 11:24
  • I feel like every part of this is a false premise, and it hides a word-request question without a sample sentence in a question disguised as a meaning-of-words question. No, I don't think "is" vs "are" points to either of the meanings clearly (and if it did, I think it would be the reverse). No, I don't think one shoe or three can be referred to as a "pair." Maybe you'd like to focus on the question "is there a name for multiple meanings that hinge on the singular/plural number?" Dec 2 '21 at 14:30
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To some extent, OP's example "puns" on the overlapping senses of a pair = one set OR two items and odd = not even (of integers, not a multiple of 2) OR unusual...

pun Cambridge Dictionary
a humorous use of a word or phrase that has several meanings or that sounds like another word

...but I don't think it's quite a "pun". It's just...

wordplay
the activity of joking about the meanings of words, especially in an intelligent way


As a general principle, there shouldn't be any difference between OP's "attributive adjective" usage (an odd pair) and the "predicative adjective" version (a pair that are odd).

But because the attributive usage is more common in this exact context (for the "non-contrived" sense of an unusual pair of shows), I think the "wordplay" sense comes across better with the predicative format (we're naturally inclined to seek an unusual meaning when presented with even slightly unusual phrasing).

Here's a link to an NGram usage chart showing that pair of shoes is is 4-5 times more common than pair of shoes are, but I really don't think that "stylistic choice" makes any difference to OP's example of wordplay.

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