Strunk & White meet at the corner of Pinker and Topology

While reading my old copy of the “The Elements of Style” (Strunk & White), 3rd edition,  I recognized a connection to an idea from the work of Stephen Pinker.


Here.  “Some nouns that appear to be plural are usually construed as singular, and given a singular verb”, followed by two examples of the singular verb and one of the plural verb. Following these examples,  Strunk wrote what he believed to be true, “In these cases the writer must simply learn the idioms. The contents of a book is singular. The contents of a jar may either singular or plural, depending on what’s in the jar – jam or marbles.”

While it is true that immersion in language with other speakers in shared language will lead you to “learn the idioms, ” Pinker has pointed out that there are discoverable, logical explanations for whether to describe the contents of containers as singular or plural.  I’m looking for my copy of his “Stuff of Thought” and detail these ideas more thoroughly.  But for now, let’s get started.

If a substance is continuous at the level of human sense perception it is singular. This would be Strunk’s jam.  This applies to continuous processes by way of metaphor also.  In contrast, if a substance is an aggregate of perceptibly separate components, they are plural.   Now I realize that perceptibility varies a lot, but let’s avoid the microscopes and telescopes, and stick to the senses of touch, sight and hearing for now.

The relevant concepts of “mass nouns” and “count nouns” can be found in Pinker’s chapter “Cleaving the Air”, page 166 of my paperback copy of the book.   I’ll come back to refine this and support my idea that Strunk’s suggestion to learn the idioms is an inadequate description of what we really do with words and concepts of plurality, as expressed in the relationships of sentence subjects and their verbs.

The way we perceive nouns, and the verbs that act on them, depend on concepts of bounded objects vs. mass objects.  Each marble is an object with boundaries.  When the question arises, “what’s in the jar?”, we say “Marbles are in the jar.”   But when jam is in the jar, or paint is in the can, or water is in the glass,  we use the singular form of the verb, is.  So when we perceive the contents of the jar as a mass object, a continuous substance, we go singular.  When we’re talking about something we perceive as a collection of boundaried objects, they are plural.  Now it won’t take you long to realize that we humans can change our frame of reference. When we do that,  suddenly we can can change the plurality of the matching verb to match our new frame of reference.  Telescopes and microscopes do that; similarly,  so does analysis and overview.  Consider these two examples. Voters are considering.  The electorate is pondering.   Look in your own writing, in your own mental cabinets, for more examples.

The best discussion of these notions that I’ve ever seen is in Pinker’s book.  I recommend it highly.  Get it out of the library, or online, but get it.  It has new ideas, presented with supporting evidence.

I honestly believe Mr Strunk would have thoroughly enjoyed the explorations of modern liguists, and heartily approved of their research.   There’s more to it, than “go learn the idioms,” and the more of it is very interesting indeed.

Jay Fulton 11/29/2009


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