Collective nouns - 99% of, the majority of the congregation - singular or plural? percent per cent

Discussion in 'English Only' started by cecil, Jun 6, 2005.

  1. cecil

    cecil Senior Member

    USA American English
    All,

    Here's a sentence: "I heard a minister say that 99% of his congregation were earning their salvation." Strictly speaking "were" sounds right even though logic dictates "is." What say the authorities?

    cecil
     
  2. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    1. Actually, logic dictates "were". The number 99 is plural, and the noun "congregation" is collective.

    2. Even if the subject were singular, you should not say "is", but "was", since the statement is in reported speech, with the verb "to hear" in the past tense.
     
  3. Kelly B

    Kelly B Senior Member

    USA English
  4. cecil

    cecil Senior Member

    USA American English
    Outsider,

    1. No, logic dictates singular because the subject is percent; 99 = .99.

    2. I think the minister was referring to a continuing reality. If you like: I heard a minister say, "99% of my congretation are earning their salvation." In that case, logically "is" would be the verb choice. You are quite right, though, about the the sentence as originally written.

    Thanks,

    cecil
     
  5. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    30% of the liquid in the bottle is alcohol.
    30% of the guests are intoxicated.
     
  6. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    In addition to panjandrum's note:

    I know that there is some rule that says that only numbers greater than 1 in absolute value should be plural. However, in practice, neither mathematicians nor engineers, nor anyone I can think of, follow that rule. It's always singular when 1, plural otherwise. Unless it's a percentage--percentages are more complicated.

    On second thoughts, I take back what I had said about this. "I heard a minister say that 99% of his congregation are earning their salvation" would be acceptable, because their salvation is something that will happen in the speaker's future. :thumbsup:
     
  7. Rob625

    Rob625 Senior Member

    Murlo (SI)
    English - England
    More than one person has noticed something odd. Fewer than two people understand what I say. ;)
     
  8. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The geese fly high tonight over the fog-shrouded marshes.
    (Sorry, sense of humour overload - please ignore)
    I seem to recall rationalisation of Rob625's eccentric statements - on the basis that to force a pedantically-correct plural (in the first) or singular (in the second) would produce catastrophic mental distress.
    In other words, to follow one and person with have causes the reader to pause and wonder: saying more than one person has.... , the reader reads on and concentrates on the meaning, not the words used.
     
  9. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Percentages are a special case. I often hesitate when talking about them, too. Should "56% of the electorate" be a plural, because "56" is plural, or a singular, because "electorate" is singular?
    Since "congregation" is a collective noun, I suppose that "99% of the congregation is" can be defensible... :confused:
     
  10. jacinta Senior Member

    California
    USA English
    Yes, you are correct. It is defensible. Notwithstanding, (I never use that word! :) ), I believe that some will use the plural when talking about a congregation only because logically, 99% of the congregation is a lot of people! "They are" makes sense and seems acceptable in most people's minds but the "correct" grammar would be to use the singular form. 99% of speakers don't bother with correct grammar :eek: most of the time.
     
  11. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Urbana-Champaign, IL
    Am. English, Pal. Arabic (See profile)
    Well, not necessarily. I think you were right the first time. Also, even if it were in the future, it would be "would earn" or "were going to earn."
     
  12. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Urbana-Champaign, IL
    Am. English, Pal. Arabic (See profile)
    I use "are" when referring to the members of the group individually; "is" when referring to them as a whole.

    ...regardless of how many there are/is.
     
  13. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I think I've made a bit of a mess, here: although "congregation" is a collective noun, morphologically it's a singular (we can say "the congregations"). So we have:

    "99% of the congregation are" -> because 99 is plural, or because "congregation" is collective;

    or

    "99% of the congregation is" -> because "congregation" is singular.

    My logic would dictate that the quantity 99% should be the subject, but I admit that sometimes it doesn't sound good.

    Well, I meant that they "are earning" their salvation now, and they will get it in the future. ;)
     
  14. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    England
    English (England)
    I don't think logic dictates anything here, usage does. The usage where I come from would be "were".
     
  15. cecil

    cecil Senior Member

    USA American English
    >>even if it were in the future, it would be "would earn" or "were going to earn."

    Elroy,

    Salvation could be considered in the future, but the "earning" of it would always be in the time frame of the worker, his present.

    cecil
     
  16. cecil

    cecil Senior Member

    USA American English
    >>I meant that they "are earning" their salvation now, and they will get it in the future.

    Outsider,

    That is exactly what they think they're doing. "Were going to earn" is a form of the verb that shouldn't be used here because the "earning" accumulates in the time frame of the worker.

    cecil
     
  17. Cath.S.

    Cath.S. Senior Member

    Bretagne, France
    français de France
    My two cents:
    percent cannot be the subject as it is an adverb.
     
  18. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    The full expression is "ninety nine percent". "Ninety nine" is a numeral, and numerals can be subjects, sometimes.
    But I suppose in the case of percentages "x percent of" is seen as a partitive expression, and that's why people regard the noun "the congregation" as the subject of the sentence.
     
  19. cecil

    cecil Senior Member

    USA American English
    :eek: The object of the prepositon is the subject?!?

    cecil
     
  20. gotitadeleche Senior Member

    Texas, U.S.A.
    U.S.A. English
    Collective nouns take singular verbs in US English, unless you are trying to stress the individual members of the group. So:
    The crew is...
    The team plays...
    The band performs...
    The congregation earns...

    If there is more than one group, if we are speaking of more than one congregation, then the plural is used.
    The congregations pray...

    I believe the rules are different in British English.
     
  21. cecil

    cecil Senior Member

    USA American English
    >>percent cannot be the subject as it is an adverb.

    equeule,

    Not always. Percent can be a noun in English meaning a hundredth part. "99 percent" would then be plural. But, on the other hand, we say "20 percent of the bottle is empty." I think we have to go with timpeac: usage.

    cecil
     
  22. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Good question.

    Actually...

    The verb in question is "to earn" (in the form "are/is earning").

    The subject of this verb is "ninety nine percent of the congregation".

    Now, the problem is that this expression contains a singular noun, "congregation", and a plural numeral, "ninety nine". So, should the verb be in the singular or in the plural?

    A priori, the verb could agree with either of them. However, native speakers have told us that they would have the verb agree with the noun "congregation".

    Then again, "congregation" is a collective noun, and for some English speakers collective nouns can take plural nouns...
     
  23. cecil

    cecil Senior Member

    USA American English
    >>The subject of this verb is "ninety nine percent of the congregation".

    Outsider,

    I have real difficulty with this statement. Suppose we say "99 parts out of 100 parts of the congregation," then "were earning" seems the logical choice. The trouble is, we Americans also say, "Twenty percent of the bottle is empty." "Are" is unthinkable. Timpeac is right; logic will not solve this question.

    cecil
     
  24. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    However, that sentence does not have the same structure as the one we were discussing. Notice that it has more nouns.
     
  25. cecil

    cecil Senior Member

    USA American English
    >>Notice that it has more nouns.

    Outsider,

    True, but I was just making the point that 99% means 99 parts out of 100 parts, so the two merit the same verb: 99% = 99 parts..." Plural. In Italian, there would be no trouble, right? X percento è, giusto? Non importa il numero di X? Lo stesso vale per il portoghese?

    cecil
     
  26. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I fear that I may have been rather too cryptic last time.
    This is a question of the nature of the thing that is being "percented".
    If that is a continuous thing, like liquid in a bottle, then 30% of it IS...
    If that is a discrete thing, like people at a party (or in a congregation), then 30% of it ARE...
    It's that easy.
     
  27. cecil

    cecil Senior Member

    USA American English
    Bravo! :thumbsup: Now let's see if anyone finds an exception--to prove the rule, of course.

    cecil
     
  28. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I should add that this principle applies also to:
    Fractions:
    a third of the people at the party are drunk;
    a quarter of the cake was eaten;
    even, surprisingly, three-quarters of the cake is left.
    Most:
    most of the people are still sober;
    most of the cake is still on the plate.

    Awaiting hordes of contrary evidence.........
     
  29. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I agree that "99%" should take the same verb form as "99 out of 100", since the former is just a shorthand for the latter.
    But when you put that extra word, "parts", you change things. Now, there's a new noun for the verb to agree with, instead of "congregation".

    I don't know about Italian. As for Portuguese, we also scratch our heads over these kinds of expressions, sometimes. :confused:
    But Panjandrum's explanation seems clear enough, at least for English.

    By the way, these expressions of the form "a portion of X" are called partitive phrases. They're a mess. ;) :D
     
  30. cecil

    cecil Senior Member

    USA American English
    panjandrum,

    So clear. You haven't written a grammar text lately, have you? If not, you should as soon as possible.

    cecil
     
  31. cecil

    cecil Senior Member

    USA American English
    >>But Panjandrum's explanation seems clear enough, at least for English.

    Outsider,

    Indeed. I think the issue is resolved.

    By the way, these expressions of the form "a portion of X" are called partitive phrases. They're a mess.

    Sorry to hear Portuguese has similar problems. Every language is eccentric, to say the least.

    cecil
     
  32. JohninVirginia Senior Member

    USA/ English
    Nice examples.
    For me, such examples work better than rules.

    My guess is that percents, fractions and most are adjectives, qualifying the noun. The verb matches the noun.
    But I'll let a grammarian answer that.
     
  33. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I understand JohniV's yearning for a grammatical resolution.
    But "my" resolution, which please understand is not my own, does not need an understanding of grammar, only common sense - and this is the common sense "rule".
    If the thing you are talking about is made up of lots of individual bits then a quarter of that thing will also be made up of lots of individual bits - and is plural.
    If the thing you are talking about is a continuous blob, then a percent of it will still be a continuous blob - and it is singular.
    I don't see any contraries yet:D
     
  34. JohninVirginia Senior Member

    USA/ English

    I think that's pretty much same thing I said (a fraction modifies the noun, but the noun still is what it was)... and for the first time in my life, I said it in less words than someone else!!:D:rolleyes::D

    GOD I LOVE THIS FORUM!!!:D

    (And I'm not arguing with panjandrum, who solved this problem in elegant fashion. I of course had nothing at all to do with the solution, but only commented about it.)
     
  35. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Urbana-Champaign, IL
    Am. English, Pal. Arabic (See profile)
    Yes, that's what I meant.

    I meant that the earning wasn't happening in the future...
     
  36. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Urbana-Champaign, IL
    Am. English, Pal. Arabic (See profile)
    This wonderful rule is easily applicable when it is clear whether we are referring to a continuous blob or a number of items. The challenge with the sample sentence and the word "congregration" is that you can refer to the congregration as a set of individual members or as a single, harmonious entity. That's why it can be both. With cake you can only say "is," with "people" you can only say "are," but with congregration you can say either, depending on your intent.

    That's the rule as far as I've learned it. :)
     
  37. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    In other words, you think the opposition is between "noncollective" and "collective" nouns.
     
  38. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Outsider: "...the opposition is between "noncollective" and "collective" nouns."? That could well be what I mean - will take some thought to test it out.
    elroy: It may be intent, it may be the number of "individual bits" in the whole thing (bigger numbers are more like a continuous blob) - but I agree that congregation might be either singular or plural.
    Well, maybe not - maybe "the congregation", meaning all of them, is singular - as in "the congregation is split down the middle" (who ever heard of a harmonious congregation;) ).
     
  39. virr2

    virr2 Senior Member

    Warsaw
    Poland

    I would say that a) is correct. This sentence can be paraphrased as "Holidays is something that always brings us all together". To me, the use of plural is incorrect here because of the singular complement.

    By the same token, the sentence "The majority are women" is correct and not "the majority is women". In the latter sentence the use of singular is incorrect because of the plural complement.

    <<Moderator note:
    This thread has been created to accommodate this conversation that was off-topic in the thread where it began.>>
     
  40. ireney

    ireney Modistra

    U.S.A.
    Greek Greece
    Virr once again we disagree :)

    Holidays are the thing. Greeks are the nation. And so on and so forth.

    As for the majority are the women, I would argue that "women" is the subject whereas in "the majority is women" "majority" is the subject; however, since it may be my Greek-Latin syntax/grammar deeply ingrained sense of how to analyse a sentence I'll wait for a native.
     
  41. virr2

    virr2 Senior Member

    Warsaw
    Poland
    Ireney, what did we disagree about? :)
    So, I am right in thinking that you claim that "the majority are women" is incorrect?
     
  42. ireney

    ireney Modistra

    U.S.A.
    Greek Greece
    virr, we disagreed about whether "it" being a dummy subject in some cases "precludes" the existence of another, "normal" subject :)

    Bearing in mind what I said about my background in sentence analysis, what I did was disagreeing about majority/women.

    I think that in the sentence
    The majority is women, "the majority is the subject while
    in the sentence
    The majority are the women, "the women" is the subject.

    In both cases we have subject/verb agreement.
     
  43. virr2

    virr2 Senior Member

    Warsaw
    Poland
    In my other post in that thread I said that the subject of the sentence "It is typical for people to get depressed" is the infinitive.
    So, a total agreement that a dummy subject doesn't rule out the existance of another subject :)

    Quirk in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language argues that in ‘The majority are Moslems’ the use of plural is the only acceptable number for the verb and claims: ‘The choice of the verb number is explicitly dictated by the complement rather than subject" and "Use of singular would be considered unacceptable ...’

    Later on he says that 'when the complement is replaced with another clausal element, the verb number changes to what is in agreement with the morphology of the head of the subject (a singular noun),e.g.
    "The majority agrees with me"
     
  44. Giordano Bruno

    Giordano Bruno Senior Member

    English, England
    No. The rules are no different for BE. What you say is perfectly correct. I don't think of it as a 'rule' however. If you are thinking of the congregation as a whole, the grammar module in your brain will direct you to say "is". If you are thinking of the individual members of the congregation, you will automatically say "are".
     
  45. virr2

    virr2 Senior Member

    Warsaw
    Poland
    But it is a rule and it has a name :D - notional concord.
     
  46. river Senior Member

    U.S. English
    In non-count situations such as congregation or student body, the singular verb is usually preferred (or so it seems to me): Ninety percent of the congregation is sober. Ten percent of the student body is drunk.

    I would use are in the original sentence, though.
     
  47. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    "I heard a minister say that 99% of his congregation were earning their salvation."

    To use was (or is), we would have to change their to its. I prefer the plural version.

    In "the majority is/are women", "women" is not the subject but the complement because it follows the verb. "The majority" can be singular or plural, depending on what it is the majority of:

    The majority of moviegoers are women.
    The majority of humanity is women.
    (unless "humanity" is plural)
     
  48. juanmamej Junior Member

    Colombia
    Spanish - Colombia
    But then, if the percentage is more than one, why do I say? :
    10% of 50 is 5. AND NOT 10% of 50 are 5.
    I like the idea of looking at the subject and not the quantifier, because although the number is more than one, the subject is a unit as a whole, therefore singular for the verb.
     
  49. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Now you are asking a very different question.
    You are asking about how to state a mathematical identity, not an English sentence.
    10% of 50, the number, is 5.
    10% of the 50 people in our club are going to Cornwall.
     
  50. atsamo Senior Member

    Polish
    It is a very important note and somehow ignored in this fascinating conversation.
     

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