HE’S A SOX.

Ben Yagoda has been on a quest:

I have for some time tracked the pluralification of sports-teams names. I am referring not to issues of what to do when the name itself is a singular or collective noun, such as Miami Heat or Utah Jazz, or to the British custom of using plural verbs for seemingly singular names. (“Manchester United are playing tomorrow.”) Rather, in the case of a team called the Cityname Nouns, historically (roughly pre-1980), it was customary to refer to “a Noun fan,” a “Noun game,” or a “Noun player.” This was analogous to other situations, where one would call someone who loved cookies “a cookie [not cookies] lover” or a place where shoes were sold “a shoe [not shoes] store.”
However, things started to change dramatically in the ’80s. Today, the norm is to talk of (for example) a Yankees game and a Yankees fan; the use of “Yankee” in those contexts is pretty much limited to the over-50 set. I’ve discussed this change, and the possible reasons for it, at greater length in my Chronicle essay “The Elements of Clunk” and in my book When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, but if you don’t care to read those texts and are at least moderately curious about the issue, you could take a look at the Google Ngram chart below, which graphs the use of the phrases Cubs fan and Cub fan in American English between 1950 and 2008 (the most recent year for which Google has data). Until the ’70s, Cubs fan was virtually nonexistent, but it overtook Cub fan in 1979 and by 2008 was more than three times more common. [...]
I have been waiting for the day someone will talk about a ballplayer being “a Yankees.” Such a locution may seem absurd—but in 1930, talking of “a Yankees game” would have probably seemed absurd, too. And it made sense that either the Red Sox or the Chicago White Sox would have been the pioneer. “Sox” is obviously meant to be plural of “sock,” but the spelling obscures the etymology. And further, where it might make a certain sense for a player for other teams to be called a Giant, a Cub, or even a Cardinal, it’s kind of cuckoo to think of any human being as a “sock.” As a result, references to a Red Sox [as opposed to Sock] fan or a Red Sox game became common before such formulations were the norm for other teams.

He thought he’d found his Great White Whale when Kevin Youkilis, the new New York Yankee, was quoted as saying “I’ll always be a Red Sox.” Alas, it turns out he actually said “I’ll always be a Red Sock”: “The writer of the article I read had taken it upon himself to change the number of the s-word.” This is a change I had vaguely noticed but had not realized had become so universal so fast. As a traditionalist baseball fan, I deplore it (along with the designated hitter, interleague play, and teams changing leagues whenever they feel like it—I’m looking at you, Houston Astros), but as an observer of language, I note it with interest and only a minimum of teeth-gnashing. In any case, do look at his Google Ngram chart; it’s quite convincing.

Comments

  1. I’m with you on the DH rule, but against you on switching leagues: sorry, the idea of every division having the same number of teams has a strong appeal.
    I’ve thought about this singular/plural thing.
    I think people really do speak of being a Red Sox or a White Sox; but that’s special to those two plural-name teams.
    I also think that the Yankees are lingustically special, in a different way. One would never speak of a Rocky game or a Marlin game or a Blue Jay game or a Cub game or an Astro game, but one really can speak of a Yankee game.

  2. Richard Hershberger says:

    “I’m with you on the DH rule, but against you on switching leagues: sorry, the idea of every division having the same number of teams has a strong appeal.”
    Get off my lawn, whippersnapper! Divisions! Feh! When the world was young and God was in his heavens, a league had eight teams. They played each other the same number of games, and at the end of the season the one with the most victories won the pennant. You can look it up!

  3. The NL is woefully behind times. It needs to catch up and finally get right with the DH! Who wants to watch easy outs, hoping for the one-in-a-thousand chance that a pitcher will get a hit? Pitchers aren’t paid to hit and consequently they don’t, can’t, even when forced into the batter’s box.
    Being well over 50, I can relax in my attitude about the Sox (Red) and enjoy their beating the Yankees today.

  4. Jeffry House says:

    My wife says an individual player for the Miami Heat should be referred to an a “hottie”.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    The oddity about “Sox” is that each individual member of e.g. the White Sox presumably wears two of them.

  6. No need to look at the Ngram chart. As someone who became an aware baseball fan in the late 70s, I consider Yankees Game or Cubs player standard. Maybe it’s because I’m a Red Sox fan.
    There are other teams beside the two Sox that may have pushed the language in this direction. I can imagine saying “I’m going to the Athletic game”, but once they moved to Oakland and became the A’s then there a would be a natural tendency to use the plural. Saying “I’m going to the A game” sounds ridiculous, or at least ambiguous. It’s also hard to talk about going to a Red game or a Red player without feeling as if you are being a little absurd. It’s much easier to stick that “s” in. Note that saying “Bench will always be a Red” is less ambiguous (at least as far as the adjective vs. noun distinction).
    Maybe it’s not an accident this change happened quickly in the 70s – the era when the A’s and Reds were among best teams in baseball.

  7. Teams named by mass nouns in whatever sport are far worse than any DH rule. And shall we start to hear next of the Maple Leaves? Ghu forfend it!

  8. des von bladet says:

    The change of leagues was the leagues idea, not the Astro’s's’s'!
    My own, more modest, demands include bringing a team back to Francophone Canananada and getting the Dodgers back to Brooklyn.

  9. Here’s a sobering thought for you des – what percentage of the current population was actually alive the last time the Dodgers played in Brooklyn? To anyone under 50 the Dodgers have always been the LA team, just as the Giants are an SF team. It’s like language change, sometimes you just have to adapt.
    I am still outraged about the Expos moving though, so I understand your emotions.

  10. When the world was young and God was in his heavens, a league had eight teams. They played each other the same number of games, and at the end of the season the one with the most victories won the pennant. You can look it up!
    Hear him, hear him!
    I can relax in my attitude about the Sox (Red) and enjoy their beating the Yankees today.
    Yes, any day the Yankees lose is a good day. (Sorry, Mike; sorry, Leslie.)
    My own, more modest, demands include bringing a team back to Francophone Canananada and getting the Dodgers back to Brooklyn.
    I can get behind those demands.
    In any case, the Mets won their opener (as they usually do, even when they’re abysmal), so all’s right with the world until Wednesday.

  11. des von bladet says:

    Vanya: I’m under 50 and for that matter born, bred and currently resident in Europe. But I am still outraged: history is after all the first resort of the temporally maladjusted.

  12. Just reading a “reprint” of George Plimpton’s 1985 April Fools Day article in Sports Illustrated (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1119283/index.htm) (sorry, don’t know how to do links here) and he refers to “Mel Stottlemyre, the Met pitching coach”. Results: 54 ghits for “the Met pitching coach” and 600k+ for “the mets pitching coach”.
    For the record, I (pushing 50) might actually say “I went to a Yankee game”, but “I went to a Met game” is an impossibility for me.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    Maybe Yagoda has done this elsewhere in his research, but the question is whether the Cub/Cubs data can be replicated for other teams, especially in other sports and/or for other nouns (does Cub pitcher v. Cubs pitcher look the same as Cub fan v. Cubs fan?), and whether the trendlines all look about the same. I was doing some experimentation myself, but it largely just led me to the perhaps-interesting datapoint that due to anti-Canadian bias or something google books doesn’t have enough pre-1970′s discussion of fans of most NHL teams to register.

  14. “Yankee” does indeed behave differently than “Cub”: “Yankee fan” has always been and remains a good bit more popular than “Yankees fan”.
    Disclosure: Braves fan, DH opponent. Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux used to compete ferociously for the highest batting average between them. Because they’re professional g-damned athletes. And the DH removes one of the most fascinating elements of the game, deciding when to pinch-hit for your pitcher,. (Not to mention another element, whether to let your slugging but awful-fielding players start.) Being an AL manager is comparably ridiculously easy. They should make half the salary.

  15. dearieme says:

    “Rather, in the case of a team called the Cityname Nouns, historically (roughly pre-1980), it was customary to refer to “a Noun fan,” a “Noun game,” or a “Noun player”: not on this side of the water.
    The fans and matches of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Glasgow Rangers, Raith Rovers always take the plural. The good citizens of Raith are notorious for insisting on this. If the team name carries no plural, the rule still applies – the followers of Queen of the South will refer to how well Queens played, of Falkirk how badly the Bairns played. Abbreviations are often plural: Hibernian are Hibs, Heart of Midlothian are Hearts, Tottenham Hotspur are Spurs, Hamilton Academicals are the Accies, and Swansea the Swans.
    There are exceptions but they are mainly too dull to discuss. Sheffield Wednesday may be an exception, or Leyton Orient, or Plymouth Argyle, or Crystal Palace. How their fans refer to Accrington Stanley I have no idea.
    Our team names seem to me sometimes to have poetry in them, but that may be familiarity breeding content.

  16. martinb says:

    “I note it with interest and only a minimum of teeth-gnashing”
    Teeth-gnashing or tooth-gnashing? That plural itself sounds quite innovative to my ears, as would, say, “a minimum of hands-wringing” in the same place in the sentence.

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    Google ngram viewer says teeth-gnashing is both attested earlier and still consistently more common than tooth-gnashing.

  18. Yeah, that issue occurred to me, but “tooth-gnashing” sounded wrong, so I went with my instinct.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    teeth/tooth gnashing.
    I think that the only known context where those words appear is gnashing of teeth, and it is not possible to gnash a single tooth, to teeth gnashing is the only possibility, in spite of the fact that compounds of the N+V-ing shape almost always have the noun in the singular (similarly nail-biting).

  20. I still think when the Expos moved to DC they should have called themselves either the Pork or the Beltway Insiders.

  21. martinb says:

    “it is not possible to gnash a single tooth, to teeth gnashing is the only possibility”
    Still not sure about the reason for this. You can’t wring a single hand either, but that doesn’t mean “hands-wringing” is the only possibility. Likewise with eye-catching, finger-lickin’, foot-dragging, hair-raising etc.

  22. Well, could it be because we gnash the top set of teeth against the bottom set? Hand-wringing is hand upon hand. Teeth-gnashing is teeth upon teeth.

  23. martinb says:

    Sounds good to me!

  24. mollymooly says:

    For English [N1 N2] compounds, one factor which increases the likelihood of N1 being plural is where N1′s plural is irregular. (Another is plurale tantum. I think there is a somewhat greater use of plural N1 in BrE than in AmE.) “Foot dragging” I guess is singular because one can drag a single foot, even though the metaphorical vignette envisages both feet being dragged.
    Most British soccer teams have a name of the form Placename FC or Placename N FC, where N is usually one of a small set {United, City, Town, County, Rangers, Rovers, Wanderers, …}. Such teams also usually have a semi-official nickname of the type US pro teams have in their official name. Some are widely used by fans [Blades, Hammers, Gunners], others mainly by hack journos [Pensioners, Toffees]. The N types are sometimes singular-mass and sometimes plural; the nicknames are almost always plural. Teams with rarer N often just use N as the nickname [Villa, Wednesday, Spartans], even if N is singular. Of course, as we all know, sports teams in BrE have plural verb concord even with singular name.

  25. I would say that irregular N1 does not make plural N1 more likely, so much as more possible. People are more willing to accept “mice eater” than “rats eater”, though in each case “mouse eater” and “rat eater” are definitely the preferred alternatives. In addition, when the N1s are considered individually rather than as generic, then the acceptability of plural N1 is greatly increased: enemies list is a list of specific enemies, whereas enemy weapon is a weapon used by enemies whoever they may be.
    In any case, I believe with Pinker that irregular plurals are often irregular in semantics, not just in morphology: search this LH post for “feet of the mountains” et seqq. for discussion.

  26. Plymouth Argyle was* founded as recently as 1886 and yet nobody has a clue where the “Argyle” bit comes from. I think they** ought to wear argyle patterned jerseys otherwise there’s no point to having the name, they might as well be called Plymouth Brethren.
    *the club = singular
    ** the players, supporters & or management = plural

  27. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Hair-raising” is odd because the mass-noun “hair” coexists with the count-noun “hair.” My hair is made up of lots of individual hairs. What gets “raised” in the cliche/frozen-metaphor seems more like the mass-noun sense than the count-noun sense to me, but YMMV.

  28. I’m not a sportsfan but The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request is a great song!
    JC, I don’t think I’ve ever seen forfend with an object before.
    LH, ditto hear, hear.
    Not that neither would be impossible. I rather enjoy hear him! hear him!
    It has to be foot-dragging because only one can be drug(ged) at a time.
    And I’ve wondered why the Texas Stars (whatever sport that may be) aren’t the Texas Star, since there’s only one on their flag.

  29. Well, iakon, now you’ve got me wondering why the Toronto Maple Leafs (whatever sport that may be) aren’t the Toronto Maple Leaf, since there’s only one on their flag.

  30. Iakon: “Hear, hear” is an abbreviated form of the original “Hear him, hear him!”, though this is not very transparent any more.
    OED2 (1897) gives this entry for the relevant sense of forfend: as you see, it can be either transitive or intransitive.
    2. a. To avert, keep away or off, prevent; esp. in deprecatory phr. God (etc.) forfend; often with sentence as object; also absol. as an exclamation. arch.
    1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) 2 Sam. xxiv. 25 The veniaunce is forfendyd fro Yrael.
    1530 Ordin. in S. Young Ann. Barber-surgeons London (1890) II. 583 As God fforfende.
    1582 N. Lichefield tr. F. L. de Castanheda 1st Bk. Hist. Discouerie E. Indias lvii. 120 There stood in the water..a great number, alwaies forfending our landing.
    a1616 Shakespeare Henry VI, Pt. 1 (1623) v. vi. 65 Now heauen forfend, the holy Maid with child?
    1640 tr. J. A. Comenius Janua Linguarum Reserata (ed. 5) xcix. §984 They joine themselves in company with the godly..as guardians to forfend..mischiefes.
    1732 H. Fielding Covent-Garden Trag. i. iii. 4 Behold thee carted—oh! forefend that Sight.
    1848 E. Bulwer-Lytton Harold I. ii. iii. 131 ‘The fiend forfend,’ said the grim Earl.
    1859 I. Taylor Logic in Theol. 226 May we not forfend the successes of our rivals by adopting their principles.
    1887 C. Bowen tr. Virgil Æneid iii. 265 Gods forefend this menace.

  31. “Hear him, hear him!” is common in Patrick O’Brian’s novels, which are filling my head these days.

  32. the British custom of using plural verbs for seemingly singular names
    is it really a distinct feature of British English?

  33. You mean as opposed to, say, Australian or South African English? I don’t know, but it’s certainly distinctive with respect to US English.

  34. Apparently the NY Times doesn’t feel very strongly about it. This is from today’s edition: None of Mr. Johnson’s six children were invited to the wedding.

  35. That’s a separate business, Crone. None in all Englishes is ambiguous between not one and no ones: none but the brave deserve the fair, meaning no one who is not brave and/or no ones who are not brave. So it can take either a singular or a plural verb.
    No, it’s sentences like England lose their way in second half, or (even worse) Why England lose, that give Americans a horrible pain in the grammar: we cannot, we will not swallow them as standard, any more than John Jones drop his umbrella. There is a marginal exception for family, which can be understood as short for family members in certain circumstances, as in My family live all over Pennsylvania, but the meaning is distributive (each of them lives somewhere else in the Keystone State) rather than collective as in the British example.
    This ascendancy of notional agreement over formal agreement in the case of collective nouns must have arisen after British and American English went their separate ways around 1700. Googling for ["Australia lose" site:au] finds plenty of sentences like Australia have lost an early wicket on day five. Analogous searches for Indian, South African, and New Zealand sources are equally productive. Canada is mixed, as I’d expect: this article is headlined Canada lose de Haan, Kassian but down Czechs at World Juniors, but we find Canada was able to respond in the body of the story. I suspect that the latter is more natural to Canadians.
    Mass-noun teams are another marginal exception in AmE: Can The Heat Win 73? shows it, but I’m tempted to say this notional agreement is a case of matching the normally-plural team names to which “the Heat” is an exception.

  36. Mass-noun teams are another marginal exception in AmE: Can The Heat Win 73? shows it, but I’m tempted to say this notional agreement is a case of matching the normally-plural team names to which “the Heat” is an exception.
    What agreement? “Can” does not alter for number.

  37. meaning no ones who are not brave
    I can’t remember ever having heard this phrase. It just sounds to me like a feeble excuse to allow none to take a plural.
    So it can take either a singular or a plural verb.
    That’s right, it can anywhere else in the world. But if the US feels so strongly about this, then it – or ‘they’ possibly makes more sense here – ought to be consequent. I – or perhaps we – may bring this up at the UN.

  38. My family live all over Pennsylvania, but the meaning is distributive (each of them lives somewhere else in the Keystone State) rather than collective as in the British example.
    What, so you can say “my family live all over NY State”, but you can’t say “my family live in NYC”? That’s the nuttiest thing I ever heard, John.

  39. Could I say “my family live on the Moon” or would it have to be “my family lives on the Moon”? Is the Moon collective or distributive?

  40. Crown, I should really let John speak for himself, but it’s fun to write about people living on the Moon, so here we go. I’m pretty sure that he means the following:
    “My family live all over the Moon” would mean that my various family members live in various places on the Moon.
    “My family lives all over the Moon” is impossible unless this tightly knit group moves around a lot.
    “My family live on the Moon” would mean that my various family members live on the Moon, but without letting you know whether they all live in the same place on the Moon.
    “My family lives on the Moon” would mean that my family lives together somewhere on the Moon.
    “My family live in a steamer trunk in a little crevice in one often-overlooked crater on the Moon” would of course convey precisely the same information as “My family lives in a steamer trunk in a little crevice in one often-overlooked crater on the Moon”.

  41. I see subtle shades of meaning there, admittedly.
    Then there’s “My family, live on the Moon”, which would be a Jackson Five show, possibly Osman Bros.

  42. Iakon – As good as A dying cub fan’s last request is, i still can’t forgive Steve Goodman for inflicting “Go Cubs Go” on the city. And the Dallas Stars (hockey team) used to be the Minnesota North Stars. At least they got rid of the “north” bit when they moved south.
    Empty – I think i’d still rather say “My family lives all over the moon” if my parents lived in the Mare tranquilitatis, I was in the ocean of storms, and my brother worked over on the dark side.

  43. I think I agree, s/o. I was just trying to interpret Cowan to the mystified Crown.

  44. Hat: Arrgh, stupidly I copied the wrong example. Here’s a real example: They talk; the Heat win.
    Crohn: Nutty or not, so it is. Family can always take the singular, so the question is, what are the circumstances in which the plural is acceptable? For me, My family lives all over the moon can either mean they are scattered (distributive) or they are Travelers (collective). But for me, unlike Empty, My family live on the Moon and My family live in a steamer trunk [...] on the Moon are both either unacceptable or BrE (and as you can see from my last post, some BrE is better than other BrE).
    Now what I would like to know are the conditions of felicitousness in BrE. From what I understand, England was victorious has to be the political entity, and England were victorious has to be the sports team. But is there a general rule for all domains? Even native-BrE-speaking linguists seem only to be able to say, rather helplessly, that collective nouns take singular agreement when people think of their referents as singular and plural when they think of them as collections. Which is all very well for them, but doesn’t tell me much, like the definition of kasha as ‘rolled buckwheat groats’ — which is far more useful to me when put the other way about, as I already know what kasha is.

  45. Oh, and better examples for none are None of the sauce is on my shirt with a mass noun, which insists on a singular verb, versus None of the meatballs are in my lap with a plural count noun, which insists on a plural verb. The brave is neither: it’s a generic singular.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    JC: The brave is … a generic singular.
    What? The brave, like the rich, the poor, the sick, etc, are plural, they are never followed by a singular verb.

  47. marie-lucie says:

    “New poll shows Labour support nose-diving”, Irish Times 3/30/2013
    This is a recent British headline, discussed in Language Log post relevant to the recent comments here (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4541#more-4541).

  48. m-l: Not in contemporary English. But we are dealing here with a line from Dryden’s 1697 ode “Alexander’s Feast”, from the very beginning of the Modern English period, and he definitely wrote None but the brave deserves the fair. By 1727, however, John Gay (the author of The Beggar’s Opera) is writing “The brave love mercy, and delight to save” just as (well, not just as) we would today.

  49. marie-lucie says:

    JC, Thanks for the clarification. I remembered the famous quotation (I have not read the original, but the sentence is frequently quoted) as None but the brave deserve the fair. Perhaps modern quoters “correct” the original, or just misremember it.

  50. marie-lucie says:

    On the other hand, the subject of the verb is not the brave but none, about which there still seems to be hesitation as to how the word should agree with the verb, as a singular or plural.

  51. None of the sauce is on my shirt with a mass noun, which insists on a singular verb, versus None of the meatballs are in my lap with a plural count noun, which insists on a plural verb.
    John, this makes sense and is the same outside N. America: sauce is singular, meatballs are plural so the negatives are likewise.
    England was victorious has to be the political entity
    Not at all: England was covered by a blanket of snow this winter. You couldn’t possibly say “England were covered by a blanket of snow” unless you meant individuals (e.g. members of a sports team). The England team are plural but the country (entity) is singular. I say entity because The Irish Isles is also a single entity even though there are many islands. It’s obvious, really.
    As I said, I admire the N. American nuances that Empty explained. The rest of it sounds way too complicated to be convincing (it sounds like the Log people are making enormous lists of exceptions and then making up excuses for them as they go along) or useful.

  52. I wasn’t claiming to be stating the NA usage. I was attempting to clarify what John Cowan had meant, without necessarily agreeing with him. But it appears that I did not get it right.

  53. A PJ: Well, yes, “it’s obvious” except to those of us for whom it isn’t. I would have said “the politico-geographical entity”, except that a geographical entity can’t be victorious (see 19th-century Italy). And I can’t say “The Irish Isles was covered by a blanket of snow”, either. At any rate, this discrepancy is mostly interesting because it is a syntactic one, one of the few syntactic regional differences within Standard English (most differences are lexical).
    m-l: None is the formal subject, but in itself it doesn’t trigger agreement. Prescriptivists claim it triggers singular agreement based on its etymology not one (really ne one), but that’s just not the case. In sentences of the form “None of NP VP”, the number of the prepositional object is what the verb agrees with.

  54. In sentences of the form “None of NP VP”, the number of the prepositional object is what the verb agrees with.
    So that “none” behaves like “all” or “some” or “about half” or “ten percent”.
    In such cases it seems to me that the object, if singular, will pretty much always be a mass noun (such as “the sauce” on the shirt). About half of the sauce went on my shirt. About half of the meatballs went in my lap.
    Whereas those prescriptivists would prefer that “none” behave like “one” (for which, by contrast, the object in “One of NP VP” if singular would never be mass).

  55. marie-lucie says:

    I like your arguments, Ø. I don’t remember reading about the parallelism between none and other quantifiers.

  56. The very fact that none of the sauce is grammatical shows that none is not the same as not one, because you cannot quantify sauce with an integer, only with a fraction between 0 and 1: half the sauce or most of the sauce, but *one of the sauce and equally *not one of the sauce. None works as both an integer and a fraction, the only such case, I think. The fraction numerically equal to 1 cannot be expressed with one; it has to be all.

  57. Tons of the sauce is on my shirt.
    Lots of the sauce is on my shirt.
    Three-quarters of the sauce is on my shirt.
    Several ounces of the sauce are (is?) on my shirt.

  58. Ø – several ounces of the sauce are on your shirt, because the subject is “ounces”, not “sauce”.

  59. I have trouble with tons of the sauce, though not with tons of sauce, where ton is not a quantifier but a unit, like kilos. The next two are fractions, where lots can be paraphrased as ‘a large fraction’. I agree with Anthony about the fourth example.

  60. marie-lucie says:

    You guys are awfully messy!

  61. I agree with Anthony, too, on the basis of what sounds right or wrong. But how do we justify “Lots … is”?

    I, too, have a little trouble with “tons of the sauce”, but I’m not sure why.
    We had noodles with my special home-made sauce. Unfortunately I ended up with tons of the sauce on my shirt.
    I cooked some noodles and I served them with a special sauce. We were hungry. We ate tons of the noodles. We ate tons of the sauce, too.
    It seems that in both of these examples “tons” is again a synonym for “lots”, but this time it means “a large amount” rather than “a large fraction”. In spite of the definite article with “sauce”, these two sentences do not suggest anything about the relation between the amount of sauce on my shirt, or the amount of sauce that we ate, and the total amount of sauce.

  62. This is making me hungry.

  63. Also it’s making me confused.
    It seems to me that, regardless of whether “lots” is being used in the relative (large fraction) sense or in the absolute (large amount) sense, it’s going to take a singular verb:
    1. Lots of the sauce was found on the floor.
    2. Lots of sauce was found on the floor.
    And for those who use “tons” to mean essentially the same thing as “lots”,
    3. Tons of the sauce was found on the floor.
    4. Tons of sauce was found on the floor.
    And if we stick to more literal ways of speaking,
    5. About twenty fluid ounces of the sauce was found on the floor.
    6. About twenty fluid ounces of sauce was found on the floor.
    Question: In which of these examples, if any, would you prefer “were” to “was”?

  64. I think the number of the verb depends on the number of the noun following “lots” (or “tons”), whose plurality is irrelevant: “lots of men are,” “lots of sauce is.”

  65. Sash’s original comment (before then disappearing) was: the British custom of using plural verbs for seemingly singular names: is it really a distinct feature of British English?
    And Language’s reply: it’s certainly distinctive with respect to US English.
    Well, it may be distinctively perceived at your end, but the other comments show that N. Americans at least appear to mix up verb & noun number almost as much as the rest of us who speak English.

  66. At that point, I thought we were talking about sports team names, and I’m pretty sure no Americans say “the team are” or “New York are.”

  67. Marie-Lucie: Well, due to my body shape, food that for others would fall between their legs or land on their pants winds up on my shirt instead. Consequently, I am one of those who tuck the corner of my napkin into my collar and spread it diagonally across my shirt, rather than decorously keeping it in my lap where it would serve no purpose at all.
    Empty: I wasn’t thinking of tons as a variant of lots (which I understand but don’t use myself), but as an actual unit. So Tons of sauce was on my shirt takes the singular in agreement with sauce, whereas Tons of sauce were/was shipped to China requires a plural in agreement with tons if it is an actual measurement, and a singular if it just means a vague large quantity. (My shirt can’t hold even one ton of sauce without becoming just another ingredient in the sauce.)
    Croon Licht: Not at all and by no means. We may have some oddities around quantifiers and mass-noun team names and the special case of family, but nothing like the routine and productive use of plural nouns with organizations that BrE (broadly construed) has. The Government are, for example, is flat impossible for us; it has to be the government is, or more correctly the administration is, since the analogue of the Cameron Government is the Obama Administration.

  68. marie-lucie says:

    the X government
    Last year the Canadian Prime Minister created an uproar when he sought to have official documents headed by Harper government instead of Government of Canada.

  69. John, Government‘s number isn’t mixed up, the point is the different usage. “The government” in England – not “Britain”, Scotland & Ireland having largely buggered off – are the bald, chinless Tories & Liberals (and the males too) sitting in the green leather benches down one side of the House of Commons. They are rows of people, a “them”. Whereas in the US “the Federal government” is a faceless bureaucracy, an “it”, what in European countries would be called the “state” (the state can’t be plural).
    The point is not that non-N. Americans mix up s. & pl. nouns & verb numbers, stupid people, it’s that nouns are judged as being s. or pl. according to local cultural perceptions.

  70. Language: I’m pretty sure no Americans say “the team are” or “New York are.”
    I’ll give you “the team”, but here’s new york are very good.

  71. “The government” [...] are rows of people, a “them”.
    Oh yes, that’s why I said this use of government corresponds to the American administration: the President, the Cabinet, the other political appointees who aren’t civil servants, who “serve at the pleasure of the President”, whoever he is at the moment. Not the faceless bureaucracy with its just as faceless bureaucrats. But even though we know perfectly well that administration is a cover term for a group, it can’t take a plural verb in AmE even so. On this I am dogmatic.
    The point is not that non-N. Americans mix up s. & pl. nouns & verb numbers, stupid people, it’s that nouns are judged as being s. or pl. according to local cultural perceptions.
    Oh yes, I get that. It’s just that (with the above-named exceptions) we Canucks and Yanks can’t do it. Grammatically singular noun, plural verb? Eeeeyuccch. It’s like — it’s like — Well, it’s like saying Anybody doesn’t live here now. Can’t say it. Impossible. A hopelessly incompetent translation from some other language. Standard version: Nobody lives here now. Non-standard: Nobody don’t live here now. But anybody in a negative sentence? It practically has to be a weird proper name, like Noman in the Odyssey.
    new york are very good
    Anyone who would call the Yankees “New York” is a stranger to these shores. Ain’t gonna convince me otherwise. Ain’t gonna.

  72. The uncontrollable shudders are beginning to decrease now, thank you for asking.

  73. here’s new york are very good.
    I’m quite confident “dj ariz” is not a native speaker of American English.

  74. Ok, Language, I give up on the sports teams.
    me: nouns are judged as being s. or pl. according to local cultural perceptions.
    John: Oh yes, I get that.
    John: Grammatically singular noun, plural verb? Eeeeyuccch.
    So then isn’t that, like, your opinion that government is grammatically singular, and the non-US opinion that it’s pl.?

  75. But anybody in a negative sentence?
    Some negative sentences work:
    Anybody who didn’t get sauce on themselves shouldn’t need another napkin.
    Anybody with a clean shirt isn’t eating right.
    But it does seem clear that unadorned “anybody” can’t be the subject of a negative declarative sentence.
    On the other hand I almost want to say that it can’t be the subject of a declarative sentence, period.
    *Anybody lives here now.
    On the other hand,
    Anybody can do it.
    Anybody has the right to say anything they want.

  76. No, it’s that government is formally, grammatically, singular in all cases and all varieties of the language, but it is notionally plural some of the time, and in such a case BrE (but not AmE) grammar calls for plural agreement on the verb of which it is the subject. This change from singular verbs to plural verbs in sentences with notionally plural subjects must have been an innovation that landed in BrE after 1700 but before, say, 1900, because the antipodal Englishes have it too. It’s a difference in syntax, not in the semantics of collective nouns.
    Hmm, number also behaves like a quantifier: a number of (the) walls have fallen down works just like none of the walls, demanding agreement with walls rather than with number itself.

  77. David Marjanović says:

    Whereas in the US “the Federal government” is a faceless bureaucracy, an “it”, what in European countries would be called the “state”

    Reminds me of Spengler claiming that, in the inevitable conflict of nobles vs. king, the English nobles won against the absolutist state – and consequently the word state, “still commonly used under the Tudors”, fell out of use so thoroughly that “today” it is impossible to translate l’État, c’est moi or ich bin der erste Diener meines Staates* into English.
    * “I am the first servant of my… country… organized country… yeah. Well.” Frederick the Great of Prussia.
    …Oh, on another Spengler idea we discussed a few months ago: although Avestan and Vedic Sanskrit are very similar, VS has innovations that Avestan lacks and that would be impossible to predict from any Iranian point of view. In other words, VS is not Proto-Indo-Iranian, and the Avesta can’t be a “text” from India pronounced in an Iranian way.

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