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A singular controversy

Not since Eris flung the Apple of Discord into the wedding reception of Peleus and Thetis (Paris, the three goddesses, Helen, the fall of Troy, all that, remember?) has there been such carrying on as we have seen since Peter Fisk of the Tampa Tribune posted this question on the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board:

"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?

You can follow the brouhaha on the ACES board:

http://lists.topica.com/lists/ACEStalk/read

Or you can follow the continuing controversy at Bill Walsh’s blog in the posting "A bunch of us is wrong" and the attached comments:

http://theslot.blogspot.com

You can read about the English language’s German origins and the ill-advised attempts by grammarians to make it Latinate (although English has always been a bastard language, with DNA from both parents). You can read some closely considered arguments. You can add synesis to your working vocabulary. You can savor some thoroughgoing dogmatism.

But first, here is what I think.

It is plain that the subject with which the verb has to agree is $18 billion. The noun bills is the object of the preposition in and therefore cannot be the subject of the sentence.

Sums of money can be considered as singular or plural, depending on context: Five dollars is all I have on me. So we are dealing with what amounts to a collective noun, like couple.

If, in context, the sense of the sentence is that a sum of $18 billion was auctioned, then the singular verb makes sense. If, however, the context suggests that bills totaling $18 billion were auctioned, then the plural verb comes in.

Here is where that prepositional phrase has an impact. Although it cannot be the subject of the sentence, it can help establish the context in which the subject is to be understood as a singular or plural. The sentence reads plural to me, though I deeply respect the convictions of those who hold otherwise.

This sort of question is better discussed over a couple of pints than over the Internet. But don’t ask me whether a couple of pints was or were all I had.

A hiatus

I will be on vacation next week and do not expect to post again until the week after.

And please don’t ask whether it should be an hiatus. One quarrel at a time.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:39 PM | | Comments (2)
        

Comments

John,
Nitpicky person that I am, I notice that you confuse billions and millions. Downright Dirksenlike, I'd say.

Those damn consonants. Them and the vowels.

Everybody needs editors. The text has been corrected

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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