Monday, March 2, 2009

"A majority of Russians believes..."?

Today on NPR's Morning Edition I heard Carl Kasell introduce a story by saying "A majority of Russians believes...". Then in the story itself, the reporter said "Ninety percent of Russians believes..."

This just doesn't sound right. I think we should consider "majority" as being plural, and therefore requiring a plural verb, when it is clear that we are talking about more than one person/thing. That is, we would say "a majority of the air *is*...", but "a majority of Russians *are*, not "a majority of Russians is".


Philip Weaver said...

I don't believe that anyone would instinctively say "believes". For that NPR segment, someone must have decided to say it that way because they thought that it was technically correct, not because they thought it sounded right.

I don't care at all what a grammatician would say is the "right" way (nor do I care whether grammatician is actually a word). Most people would agree that "believe" sounds right.

chessart said...

Grammarian John McIntire agrees. See his analysis at

chessart said...

McIntyre end with "The NPR examples above indicate a misunderstanding of the principle of synesis, in which meaning can trump the strictest application of subject-verb agreement."

Not having encoutnered the word "synesis" before, I went to Wikipedia which has this definition: "a grammatical construction in which a word takes the gender or number not of the word with which it should regularly agree, but of some other word implied in that word. It is effectively an agreement of words with the sense, instead of the morphosyntactic form."

Wikipedia goes on to say that "Such use in English grammar is often called notional agreement, because the agreement is with the notion of what the noun means, rather than the strict grammatical form of the noun. The term situational agreement is also found, since the same word may take a singular or plural verb depending on the intended emphasis of the speaker or writer."

An example given is "If the band is popular, they will play next month." This illustrates the use of synesis, probably at its most extreme.

Micah Sommer said...

It seems that synesis is more common in British English than American English. For example, in British English, band names are always plural, regardless of the construction of the name itself. Thus, Radiohead are a British band, while Nirvana is an American band.

chessart said...

I noticed during the World Cup that the British announcers always refer to a team in the plural, as "England are doing well today." A similar thing to the band comment Micah made.