1  3 4 5 6 7 8 17
"Total" is notionally plural here. It's like when the Brits say "Kodak are coming out with a new camera..."

That and Bob's "Oy" notwithstanding, I don't think it is.

Some day, perhaps even in our lifetimes, it may be. "None" has now moved to being unexceptionably plural when the context so requires(1); but I do not, myself, believe that "number", "total", and like forms have yet so fully evolved from their inherent singularity.
In light of the reality that it is trivially easy to avoid the question altogether, there seems little make that no merit in forcing the issue in either direction. The things are, for now, what Garner has called "skunked terms": damned if you do and damned if you don't.
(I also, as a personal observation, feel that the gradual evolution of these ostentatiously singular terms into things that can encompass the plural when so many easy alternatives are available is a sign of massive intellectual laziness in the English-speaking world.)
(1) But some of us will still avoid, whenever we can catch ourselves, using a plural "none" and no one will notice.

Cordially,
Eric Walker
My opinions on English are available at
http://owlcroft.com/english /
I hesitate to raise this one but I heard someone ... a total. Using "is" would jar however. What's correct here?

"Is".

Wrong. However people vote, it will be yet another politician, not a total, who is elected.
I think the example is best understood as a clumsy version of "In total, six candidates are standing".

Regards
John
Students: We have free audio pronunciation exercises.
"Is".

Wrong. However people vote, it will be yet another politician, not a total, who is elected.

The relevance of which to the question is . . . ?
I think the example is best understood as a clumsy version of "In total, six candidates are standing".

Whether the original is clumsy or not, that is indeed the thought being expressed. So?
Perhaps some board-game company ought to put out "Spot the Subject!" as a pedagogical tool. Then perhaps follies such as "a total are" could be avoided.
The too-common error of being unable to spot what is what in a sentence commonly leads to other follies, like:
He is one of those men who is always trying to help his friends and neighbors.
Men who is?
But stuff like that hits print (or electrons) by the hour, if not the minute, worldwide.

Cordially,
Eric Walker
My opinions on English are available at
http://owlcroft.com/english /
Probably because, to borrow a phrase much in use in this place, it sounds "felicitous" and in practice generates no ambiguity. Although you rightly draw our attention to the "men", qualified by their tendency to help their friends and neighbours as the true grammatical subject, the speaker of the sentence is undoubtedly discussing a singular person typical of that group, and that is what most people would correctly infer. The sentence is not really about the group, but the behaviour of the person so qualified, and one would expect succeeding sentences to bear this out.
Incidently, since we are dwelling on subtlety (or is it pedantry), exactly whom is supposed to be helped, according to this sentence?

"He is one of those men who are always trying to help their friends and neighbors."
it becomes unclear whether the neighbours belong singly or serially to each member of the qualifying group. Perhaps they are one large group with a common set of friends and neighbours, in which case the qualification to membership of the man initially described must be in doubt. Perhaps he only assists his own neighbours, rather than all neighbours belonging to the qualifying group as a whole?

"He is one of those men who are always trying to help his friends and neighbors."
it not only sounds "infelicitous" and contrived, but suggests that he is merely one of a number of people trying to assist a specific set of friends and neighbours of the man described.
The use of the verb "is", paired with the "his" emphasises the exclusivity of the relationship between the man on the one hand and the friends and neighbours on the other. The syntax may well be wrong, but the semantic content conveyed in practice is unambiguous.

If a purpose of language is efficient and accurate movement of ideas, then in this case, I see the "ungrammatical" construction as preferable.
FRAN
The too-common error of being unable to spot what is ... (or electrons) by the hour, if not the minute, worldwide.

Probably because, to borrow a phrase much in use in this place, it sounds "felicitous" and in practice generates no ... the group, but the behaviour of the person so qualified, and one would expect succeeding sentences to bear this out.

Let's try "John is one of the men running for president." What does "running" (an obvious present participle here) modify? Sure John is running for president. But so are several other men. All the men are running for president. So why can't "running" modify "men"? There are men running for president, and John is one of them. In fact, the sentence makes far more sense if "running" modifies "men," because otherwise you might as well just say "John is running for president." "One of the men" just hangs there, communicating nothing.
This doesn't change if you use a dependent clause instead of a participle. If you convert the sentence to "John is one of the men who is/are running for president," it's hard to believe that the clause doesn't modify "men." And for the same reason.
Things do change a bit when you get to "He is one of those men who is always trying to help his friends and neighbors." That's because "men" is modified by "those." Here's an example of a context where it fits just fine: There are lots of men in our neighborhood who are good at keeping houses in fine condition. He is one of those men who is always trying to help his friends and neighbors." There are better ways of saying what that says, but here it's clear that "those men" refers to all the ones good at keeping houses in fine condition, and from that class of men, "he" is one who is always trying to help his friends and neighbors.

But it takes both a context and some clumsy writing to get there from here. And if you replace "those" with "the," it's almost impossible to set things up so a singular verb in the dependent clause can be justified.

In real life, it's almost invariably "men who are"; "men who is" is either a blunder or the result of some pretty unclear writing.
Incidently,

I hope that was a typo.
since we are dwelling on subtlety (or is it pedantry), exactly whom

I hope that was a typo.
is supposed to be helped, according to this sentence?

Friends and neighbors. Several men help them. The "he" that is the subject of the sentence is one of the men who help friends and neighbors.
"He is one of those men who are always trying to help their friends and neighbors." it becomes unclear whether the neighbours belong singly or serially to each member of the qualifying group.

Not to me. You can both help and be helped. There are a bunch of men who help. He is one of them. This isn't rocket surgery.
Perhaps they are one large group with a common set of friends and neighbours, in which case the qualification to ... doubt. Perhaps he only assists his own neighbours, rather than all neighbours belonging to the qualifying group as a whole?

This is metaphysics. I do grammar and usage.
"He is one of those men who are always trying to help his friends and neighbors." it not only sounds "infelicitous" and contrived,

I couldn't disagree more. (Well, maybe I could, but I'm sufficiently obnoxious as is.)
but suggests that he is merely one of a number of people trying to assist a specific set of friends and neighbours of the man described.

As indeed he is. That's the whole point. What other description could you possibly have for the "men" in the sentence?
The use of the verb "is", paired with the "his" emphasises the exclusivity of the relationship between the man on the one hand and the friends and neighbours on the other.

But the use of the plural makes it clear that the relationship is not exclusive. If it were exclusive, you wouldn't have the sentence you have. The sentence would just say "He helps his friends and neighbors." The point of introducing the other "men" into the sentence is to indicate that he is not alone.
The syntax may well be wrong, but the semantic content conveyed in practice is unambiguous.

IAPE.
If a purpose of language is efficient and accurate movement of ideas, then in this case, I see the "ungrammatical" construction as preferable.

You are free to believe that. I consider it not only ungrammatical but misleading.
But then, that's what makes horse races.

Bob Lieblich
Neighing away
Students: Are you brave enough to let our tutors analyse your pronunciation?
Eric:
I know we've discussed this privately before, but I'd have to say again that in constructions like 'A total of six candidates are standing', I don't see 'a total... are'; I see 'a-total-of-six... are'. Since it is the candidates who are standing, I see 'are' as correct.
How about 'a lot of candidates are standing'?
(snip)
Gerald Smyth
Incidently, since we are dwelling on subtlety (or is it pedantry), exactly whom is supposed to be helped, according to this sentence?

Oy!

Skitt (in Hayward, California)
www.geocities.com/opus731/
Eric: I know we've discussed this privately before, but I'd have to say again that in constructions like 'A total ... it is the candidates who are standing, I see 'are' as correct. How about 'a lot of candidates are standing'?

Gerald:
Our private discussions have given me immense respect for your knowledge of, and more essential your sense of English. But here, I regret to say, I think you are astray, albeit in a manner in which many as we see also go astray.
Even a hypothetical compound "a-total-of-six" retains the innate quality of singularity. Surely it is "The total of standing candidates is six", and "If we add up the candidates standing, the total is six." There is no escaping the bare fact that the subject of the original sentence is "total"; and there is no escaping the fact that "total" is a singular noun (else there would be no form "totals").

When we write
He is one of those men who are always trying to help their friends and neighbors.
it is akin to writing "He is one of those confounded Democrats." The words "men who are always trying to help their friends and neighbors" denominate a plural class as surely as the words "confounded Democrats" do. If we write simply

He is one of those men."
no one is in the least disturbed. If we now choose to modify the plural word "men", we can do so in numerous unexceptionable ways:
He is one of those bald men.
He is one of those tight-fisted men.
and so on. We can also use some appositive adjectivals:

He is one of those men rarely heard from.
He is one of those men so often portrayed in print.

Still no one squeals because number agreement or disagreement is not forced to the fore. We can even write
He is one of those men always trying to help friends and neighbors.
and still no squeal because still no clash.
How, then, does
He is one of those men who are always trying to help friends and neighbors.
differ in grammatical substance from the others?

Very, very clearly (or so I would think) "who are always trying to help friends and neighbors" is simply an adjectival phrase modifying "men". It has no essential relation to "He" or "one", and it cannot be written else, "men" being plural.

If we wrote prose as we write mathematical expressions, that would probably look like
He is {(one of (those men who are always trying to help friends and neighbors))}.
except that I have left out some of the even-lower-level aspects of the words in true parentheses.
That is parsing. Surely we can all do it. So why the problems?
I should stop there, with the rhetorical question. But, to answer it myself, the problem is, I suspect, that we read and think too quickly. We take in the whole line, and the plurality of "candidates" clashes with the singularity of "is". The difficulty arises because the true (that is, grammatical) subject of the sentence, "total", is not the thing or things, "candidates", constituting the focus of our attention .

English allows us to construct sentences in that manner, and sheer logic forces its grammar to make the verb agree, always and ever, with the grammatical subject of the sentence, whether or not that is the "intellectual subject" of the statement.
The remedy is simple: do not compose sentences in which the number of the grammatical subject differs from the number of the "intellectual subject". But, till writers can uniformly do that, consistency all that gives meaning to the very concept of "rule" (and "rule" is all that gives meaning to language) requires that the grammatical subject and the verb work and play well together, the "intellectual subject" notwithstanding.
As to: "A lot of candidates are standing." We parse: the subject is "candidates"; "a lot of" is an adjectival modifier "lot" is not the subject. So the wanted verb form is plural.

Why is "candidates" the noun in "a lot of candidates" and "total" the noun in "a total of six candidates"? Answering relies, I think, on a sense of the tongue. "A lot of" is a colloquial phrase used as a synonym for "many"; it is not intended, and I think is rarely if ever taken for, a true statement using "lot" in any literal sense. But with words like "number" and "total", we have not that excuse. Indeed, I would reckon that did someone write "A lot of six candidates &c &c", we would be obliged to take "lot" as the singular noun that is the subject of the sentence, with "of six candidates" as an adjectival modifier, as with "number" or "total".

It is possible that we are in a time when "a number of" is slipping into the same colloquially diffuse status that "a lot of" already occupies. Perhaps even within our lifetimes it will achieve definitely that status. Whether that is an augmentation or a diminution of English is not relevant here; what is relevant is that even if that process is underway, which is by no means certain, it is far from a done deed. And even if it ever is done, all we will have is a colloquialism. No careful contemporary writer will tolerate such a use as "a number . . . are." (Sorry, Gerald, but that is how I see it.)

Cordially,
Eric Walker
My opinions on English are available at
http://owlcroft.com/english /
Teachers: We supply a list of EFL job vacancies
Re:
He is one of those men who is always trying to help his friends and neighbors.
Incidently, since we are dwelling on subtlety (or is it pedantry), exactly whom is supposed to be helped, according to this sentence?

Bingo. You win this round of "Spot the Error!" My attention was so much on the true subject and verb that I went all to pot on the rest. The intended (wrong) sentence was:
He is one of those men who is always trying to help their friends and neighbors.
The original problem, as I have said in a post parallel to this one, is that English allows us to write sentences in which the grammatical subject is not the "intellectual subject" (or "conceptual subject" if you like); moreover, we can generate sentences in which the number of the grammatical subject and that of the conceptual subject clash.
We then have a choice: throw the idea of grammar as a set of simple and, above all, reliable rules right out the window, or recast, setting the grammatical and conceptual subjects to the same number to avoid needless clash. (Or, a third option, presume our readership actually has a more than passing familiarity with standard sound English but that is become a vanishingly small choice nowadays.)
Anyway, I know how I'm voting.

Cordially,
Eric Walker
My opinions on English are available at
http://owlcroft.com/english /
Show more