Friday, November 13, 2009

Figuring out the number of ways to skin a cat

Should the verb be in the singular or in the plural form?

Answering this question is usually a very simple matter when we know for sure if the subject of the sentence is singular (“The cat is in the bag”) or plural (“The politicians are now coming out of the woodwork”), or even when there seems to be a quarrel between notion and grammar (“Everybody is scandalized by the his unrepentant behavior”). This is because we can always readily apply one of the most basic rules of English grammar: the subject-verb agreement rule, which, of course, provides that the number of the subject—whether singular or plural—should always agree with the form of the verb—the singular form when the subject is singular, and the plural form when the subject is plural. It’s all that simple.

Not so, however, when the sentence is in a form in which it isn’t clear if the subject is singular or plural. There are several of such sentence constructions in English, and a grammar-savvy friend of mine pounced on me with one a few years ago, challenging me to figure it out. As I recall in the column below that I wrote in 2005, the grammar puzzler took me quite a while to dissect and unravel.

An English-language conundrum

While fine-tuning my book, English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, for its second printing [this was four and a half years ago], I received e-mail from faraway Stockholm with this note about a particular usage in the book: “Here’s a conundrum, Jose: Should it be ‘There is more than one way to skin a cat’ or ‘There are more than one way to skin a cat’? Consider this as a question submitted to your column.”

The interlocutor was my cyberspace friend Niels Hovm√∂ller, a knowledgeable Swedish gymnasium (secondary school) English teacher and educational software developer who had admirably taken it upon himself to help me put the book’s English on even firmer and surer footing. Purely for love of the language, he was going over the text by line and word for word, promptly e-mailing me incisive—and sometimes tart—comments like the one above every time he found some doubtful grammar or semantic usage in my prose.

Before I answer Niel’s question, though, let’s find out first what “conundrum” means. This is a recurrent word in philosophy and linguistics, but probably not very many of us have bothered to find out what it means. The first of its three Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary meanings is “a riddle whose only answer is or involves a pun,” but Niels is obviously using it here simply to mean “a question or problem having only a conjectural answer.”

That said, I will now fearlessly answer his question: without any doubt, the correct usage is the singular construction, “There is more than one way to skin a cat.” As in the case of many grammar conundrums, however, I will be able to justify my answer only as we go along.

We all know that in English, “there is” or “there are” expressions—the linguistic term for them is expletives—are commonly used to declare or affirm that something exists. They came about because native English speakers generally feel uncomfortable saying such simple declaratives as “A cat is on my bed” or “Errors are in your manuscript.” To assuage their discomfort, they tack on “there is” or “there are” to such statements even if many grammarians think that expletives only serve to weaken prose: “There is a cat on my bed.” “There are errors in your manuscript.”

The simple subject-verb agreement rule in English, of course, applies even to expletive constructions: use “there is” if the subject is singular, like “apple” or “book,” and if the subject is a non-count noun, like “water” and “air”; but use “there are” if the subject is plural, like “apples” and “books.” In the conundrum above, however, it is not crystal clear if the subject of the sentence, “more than one way,” is plural or singular. Many people would argue that it is plural because more than one way—presumably at least two—is being invoked. For the subject-verb agreement to reflect that plurality, they reason out that the correct expression should be “There are more than one way to skin a cat.” Many of us obviously would bristle seeing such an awkward sentence construction, but we now have to conquer our bias against it so we can objectively determine once and for all if the usage has no possibility whatsoever of being correct.

One English grammar rule can actually help us resolve this conundrum. That rule says that when a clause begins with “there is/there are,” the verb should agree in number with the first noun or pronoun being linked by that verb. Under this proximity rule, we say “There is a woman and three men in the car,” not “There are a woman and three men in the car.” When we decide to put the plural subject ahead in that sentence, however, we obviously can use only the plural construction: “There are three men and a woman in the car.”

Now we are ready to frontally tackle Niel’s conundrum: Should it be “There is more than one way to skin a cat” or “There are more than one way to skin a cat”? Invoking the expletive construction rule above, there should be no doubt now that in those two sentences, the subject most proximate to the expletives “there is/there are” is “one way,” which obviously is singular. Therefore, the noun phrase “more than one way to skin a cat” that was built around that singular subject should also be treated as singular. The plural usage would apply, of course, if the subject were “two ways” or a number more than that—“There are more than two ways to skin a cat.” “There are more than nine ways to skin a cat.”—but this is obviously not the case here.

With this, I am confident that we have now resolved Niel’s conundrum for good. (March 21, 2005)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 21, 2005 © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. A Carillo statement from "You Asked Me...etc":

    "Now see how “due to” and “owing to” fares so badly in that sentence construction:"

    The subject here is a compound plural, is it not? Try "fare"...!