Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Bunch of Us Is Wrong ©

Ever the contrarian, I seem to be in a small minority in one debate currently raging online and, so far, utterly alone in another.

On the ACES board, this question was posed:

"An additional $18 billion in six-month bills was auctioned at a discount rate of 4.545 percent."

"An additional $18 billion in six-month bills were auctioned at a discount rate of 4.545 percent."

Which one do you like better, and why?
It's obvious to me that "were" is correct. It's obvious to almost everybody else that "was" is correct. (Congratulations to Autumn, though, who replied first and got it right.)

There are interesting issues along these lines, as many people pointed out, but that isn't an example of them. My final thought:
It's easy to get distracted by the dollar amount in the original example. . . .

Yes, as many pointed out, you say $18 million was, not were -- but that's not the issue at all in this case. Forget the dollars and imagine it was "a lot of bills were sold" or "a bunch of bills were sold." "Lot" and "bunch" are singular, but your ear, and those synesis principles that Garner describes, should make it clear that the plural "bills" requires a plural verb. Sums would behave no differently -- the specifics on that side of the equation are an irrelevant distraction.

Others that actually are close calls:

"A group of doctors is/are going to meet." Depends. The AMA is going to meet, but Drs. Brown, Smith and Jones are going to meet. In one case we're really talking about a group; in the other we're really talking about some doctors.

"Eighteen million barrels of oil is/are consumed each day." Are we counting the very countable "barrels," or are we simply using them as a unit of measurement for a non-countable entity? I'd say the latter (just as we were talking about bills, not dollars, here we're talking about oil, not barrels), but here's one where I might expect such vigorous debate.
(I claim bonus points for illustrating how easy it is to confuse millions and billions.)

Meanwhile at, somebody who makes posters using images of newspaper pages was taken to task for thievery and copyright infringement and whatnot.

My current attitude toward copyright law is "I don't even know who you are anymore," and so Newsdesigner and the commenters who came before me may well be correct, but here's what I had to say:
It's not theft, any more than taking a photo of somebody in public is stealing his or her soul. Am I not allowed to take a photo of the side-by-side newspaper vending machines displaying such pages and call it art? How about whipping out my brush and dashing off an oil painting? What happened to fair use?

"Copyright" nonsense has gotten way out of hand, as the Washington Nationals' imminent name change to the Washington (it was the only name not previously thought of) is proving.
Flame away, but be careful about violating this copyright.


Monica Anna Rostocki said...

Dear Mr. Walsh,

I'd like to venture a guess that this is the best way to contact you, so here I am! My name is Monica Anna Rostocki, and I'm writing to ask you some general questions about your profession. I am currently a senior at The Ohio State University, and I'm enrolled in Richard Selfe's Technical Writing class, which primarily involves developing a blog based upon our professional aspirations.

My blog,, is geared towards scouting an internship in book publishing for this upcoming summer- I must be humble and say its a novice blog, but I've devoted one entry to your web site, The Slot, because I think you've managed to provide a great deal of insight into the copy-editing industry. I'm impressed not only with the interactive user face, but also by how the tone of writing draws in your readers. Would you be willing to answer a few questions regarding your work and the editing industry? I think my peers would truly benefit from your input :-)

My best,
Monica Anna Rostocki

Bill said...

Sure, Monica. Just be sure to duck if you ask me about "The" Ohio State University ...

Bill said...

How exactly do you auction off money? Of COURSE the bills were auctioned; that's not in dispute.

In the sentence "A million people were born," should it be "was" because no people were born? After all it's only "a" singular million! The dollar amount in the original sentence is the same thing; it's a counting device. The fact that it looks like a "subject" points not to the incorrectness of the obviously correct plural verb, but rather to the limitations of the rudimentary tools of grammatical analysis you're trying to apply.

I have no doubt that the PhD-level grammar people have a nice label other than "subject" to pin on the "$18 billion" part to prove my point.

Peter Fisk said...

I'm in notional agreement with you, Bill.

This is one of the many times when real-world usage trumps the basic rules of grammar that English teachers teach.

I’m not sure what the technical terminology would be either, but it seems to me that, idiomatically, "$18 billion" isn’t really the subject and “in six-month bills” isn’t really a prepositional phrase. Rather, "$18 billion in" modifies “bills.”

The sense is plural, just as the sense in “Five gallons of gas was spilled on the ground” is singular.

Bill said...

Thanks, Peter. I'll go a step further: Even in the strictest technical sense, there's just no way that "$18 billion in bills," not "$18 billion," isn't the true, complete subject.

Come on, Language Log people -- help me out here!

Dr Zen said...

The man in a grey suit and a hat were looking at me.


Bill said...

Yeah, that's EXACTLY parallel.

Monica Anna Rostocki said...

I'll take your word for it and circumvent the mention of my collegiate institution altogether :) When you have a moment, I appreciate your input on these questions very much. Feel free to answer whichever questions inspire thought for you, and I'll post your answers on my blog! My email address is if that is a more convenient venue for you

-How does blogging affect the publishing/editorial world?

-If you have a problem with a respective technology where do you turn?

-How do you think the world of editing will be affected by changing technology in the next five to ten years?

-Has technology positively or negatively affected the way you operate as a professional?

-Have technological changes affected the way copy editors interact with each other?

-Do you have any contacts that you rely on to get information in your academic field? If so, how do you find yourself communicating with these contacts most effectively?

-Do you believe that technologies have positively/negatively changed the way people generally compose or write (ie oral presentations, online communication, written materials, uses of databases and real-time systems, the WWW, etc.)

Bill said...

Well, if the simple preposition "in" disqualifies a complete subject from mattering and elevates the simple subject to immunity from common-sense scrutiny, renders notional agreement powerless, flushes synesis down the toilet, and commands us all to put on our idiom blinders, then the simple preposition "of" must also.

So I guess "A bunch of us is wrong" is correct, case closed, and we must turn to "A bunch's worth of us" to get to the logical "are."

Bill said...

Right, and that "in" does seem to be the crux of it.

There are some good arguments on the ACES board alongside the ones from people who obviously didn't read all the posts, but even the intelligent ones, to me, are too quick to twist reality to conform with the extremely soft science that is grammar, rather than acknowledging that the example exposes the limitations of that extremely soft science -- or at least, no offense, the limitations of their expertise in that extremely soft science. Even if I'm working on a 200-level plain and they're qualified to teach 700-level courses, the answer could be in the advanced section of the 800 level.

If I'm wrong there, which is quite possible, then the answer lies in Mr. Fisk's and Mr. McIntyre's and Mr. Fisher's references to the exceptions to the rules. One could construct an example in which the money is the subject. Absent that context, the bills are clearly the subject. The only question is how, exactly, to academically explain that reality.

Peter Fisk said...

I’ve concluded that the grammatical explanation is probably less arcane than we thought: A sum of money can act as a collective noun and thus be subject to the same noun-verb agreement factors as other collective nouns.

It’s just that collective nouns typically use “of” rather than “in.”

(I don't think this is a simple case of "agreement with the nearest," by the way.)

The best argument so far in the “was” camp on the ACES board is that the bills are debt, so therefore it was $18 billion in debt that was sold, thus constituting a mass noun and calling for a singular verb.

I think the right answer is that the right answer depends on which of two valid ways you interpret the construction. Either it was $18 billion (singular) in debt that was auctioned off in the form of six-month securities, or it was six-month securities (plural), with a face value of $18 billion, that were auctioned off. I think “was” can reasonably be considered correct, but I think “were” is better. To my ear, bills were sold, $18 billion worth.

Here are some other examples to illustrate the logic:

- When the poker game ended, $750 in IOUs were stacked next to McIntyre’s $1,200 pile of chips.

- Then Walsh kicked over the table, and $1,200 in poker chips were rolling around on the floor.

- On the way home from the poker game, Fisk was pulled over by a cop, who unfortunately noticed that $620 in unpaid speeding tickets were scattered on the dashboard.

- From a New York Times story:
A Justice Department investigation that began in 1989 contends that a total of $11 million to $12 million in bribes were paid by dealers to Honda executives between 1979 and 1992 in the form of cash, expensive cars, jewelry and real estate.

- From The Times of London:
According to the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Mr Dochnal’s arrest followed the release of 160 taped phone calls to a parliamentary committee investigating the so-called Orlengate scandal in which £40 million in bribes were allegedly paid to senior Polish politicians by Russian energy giants competing for Polish projects.

- BBC news:
He told the Senate that 5m pesos ($100,000) in bribes were handed over every fortnight over a period of 22 months.

- New York Times again:
Law enforcement officials said they believed as much as $2 million in bribes were paid by the bureau's contractors over the last five years.

Dr Zen said...

"Yeah, that's EXACTLY parallel."

Well, teasing aside, it should point you to why you're wrong.

"A man in red spoke".
"$18 million in bills is a lot of money."
"A slam in spades is worth no more."


"$18 million of bills are a lot of bills".

The problem is simply explained though. The sentence needed rewriting because you want "bills" to the subject, and in your example sentence, it isn't.

Bill said...

"A bunch of us is wrong." The subject is "bunch."

Now, THAT's parallel.

Peter Fisk said...

Hold on now.

I think the person's point about Treasury bills being debt was that the sale is, in effect, a sale of money – an intertemporal sale of money, that is. From that perspective, $18 billion WAS auctioned – in the form of six-month securities. The buyers paid slightly less than $18 billion (about 98.7 cents on the dollar) to receive $18 billion in six months’ time. They bought $18 billion.

That’s not an unreasonable perspective, which is one of the factors that make the verb agreement in the Treasury bills sentence so hotly disputed.

Another factor is that the commonplace “X dollars in Y” collocation can have two very different meanings depending how you intend it or interpret it.

Another factor is that many copy editors have been instructed to assume that all money sums are to be treated as grammatically singular, which inevitably leads them astray.

Another factor is that the received grammar seems incapable of fully explaining what’s going on in the perfectly grammatical sentence in question.

As I’ve said, I consider the concept plural, but the people who see it as singular are not necessarily wrong.

The AP's business copy routinely treats the construction as singular, and it has long been a mild curiosity to me. So the other night I decided to post it on the ACES board to see what others think about it and encourage some friendly, professional discourse.

Bill said...

Both here and on the ACES board, I think we've made progress. Good, well-reasoned arguments on both sides recently, and it's been days since I've been accused of essentially saying "$18 billion are a lot of money."

Time to get back to the work of the American people?

Alex Zesch said...

The main argument for "were" -- the bills were auctioned -- is conceptually false. No buyer said, "I'll take three six-month bills." Instead, one would have said, "I'll take $4 million."
Thus, the sense is not plural, and the argument is over.

When the poker game ended, $750 in IOUs were stacked next to McIntyre’s $1,200 pile of chips.

This, to my perhaps simplistic English-as-a-second-language ear, also sounds false. Here, the problem is created by the verb, stacked. Because stacked is used, one is almost forced to say were. However, $750 remains the subject, and the entire construction, $750 in IOUs were stacked, to me is indefensible. It should be "IOUs worth $750 were stacked."
I would apply the same to the other examples.
Does that account for "how people talk"? Yes and no. To me the usage of were is wrong and sounds wrong, so people shouldn't say it, and I see no need to find a grammatical justification for using it when one exists for was, which sounds correct.

Bill said...

OK, so most of us "is" right?