Thursday, August 19, 2010


There’s number in numbers

With the recent exodus of several bloggers from ScienceBlogs, MarkCC, who writes Good Math, Bad Math, put together Scientopia, and a batch of science-related bloggers landed there. There are some good blogs on Scientopia, so go have a look.

In a post about fuzzy logic, Mark makes a common language blunder, which I want to pick on (on the language thing, not on Mark; this is a very common error):

When we say logic, we tend to automatically think of a particular logic: the first order predicate logic, which is the most common, fundamental logic used in both mathematics, and in rhetoric and debate. But there are an astonishing number of different logics for different purposes. Fuzzy logic is one particularvariation, which tries to provide a way of reasoning about vagueness.

Note: there are an astonishing number of different logics.

Different logics is plural. Many different logics is plural. Astonishingly many different logics is plural.

But a number of different logics is singular.

There’s even a clue to its being singular, right there in the phrase; can you find it? That’s right: a number, or in Mark’s original, an astonishing number. We use a singular article because it’s singular, and so it has to take singular verbs and modifiers, as well.

Of course, that also means we need to adjust the sentence structure a bit: But there is an astonishing number of different logics, each for a different purpose. Or we can change it this way, if we think the singular sounds odd and we want to keep the plural: But there are astonishingly many different logics, each for a different purpose.

At its basic level, number agreement ought to be the easiest thing to get right. But when things get complicated, that’s not the case, and a number of isn’t the only trouble spot. Compound phrases often cause problems as well, and often the answer is to use what matches the portion of the compound that’s in closest proximity.

Another trouble area is in phrases such as none of us: is it none of us is going or none of us are going? I prefer the former, but style guides differ. In the end, it comes down to what you want to emphasize — is it that there isn’t even one of us going, or that of the group of us, we’ll all be absent?

None of us know[s] for sure.

1 comment:

The Ridger, FCD said...

Just as with "none", or so-called 'singular they' (really indefinite), "there are an astonishing number of logics" strikes me as using notional, not grammatical, agreement.

After all, "an astonishing number of" clearly refers to more than one, hence the plural verb.

Given that English has almost no grammatical marking or agreement left, it's not surprising that notional agreement plays such as large role in it.