Wednesday, February 08, 2017

"There is a pair of shoes" versus "There are a pair of shoes"

(Grammar Questions I Couldn't Answer)

A colleague asked me the other day: "Would you say: 'There is a pair of shoes' or 'There are a pair of shoes' "

I responded that according to my native speaker intuition, both of them sounded okay.   And perhaps "There are a pair of shoes" even sounded better.

But according to the grammar rules, I was was pretty sure it was "There is a pair of shoes," because "a pair" was the main noun, and "of shoes" was a prepositional phrase modifying "a pair".

Another colleague brought up the example of "a bunch of bananas." Is it "There is a bunch of bananas" or "There are a bunch of bananas."

I recalled I once had a similar question with a similar sentence a few years ago.
This was a couple years ago--before I started blogging about all the grammar questions I couldn't answer--but I had the same question about a very similar sentence.

Because I have a typical American grammar education, I spent much of middle school diagramming sentences.  And so I was pretty sure "a bunch" was functioning as the main noun, and "of bananas" was a prepositional phrase modifying bunch.  So it should be "There is a bunch of bananas".
But my manager at the time had argued that "bananas" was the main noun, and "a bunch of" was functioning as one lexical unit as a modifier of "bananas".  So it should be "There are a bunch of bananas"


Stephan Hurtubise said...

Hey, Joel!

Thought I'd chime in! I don't have anything *super* insightful to say, except that English does sometimes show semantic number agreement between the subject and the verb (as opposed to grammatical agreement). So, grammatically speaking, in each case, it 'ought' to be singular rather than plural, since "pair" and "bunch" are both singular. Conceptually, though, each refers to a group or collection of things, which opens the doors to so-called semantic agreement -- hence, plural "are."

If you're curious to check your own intuitions against the relative frequencies (in written text) of how these turns-of-phrase are used, in both the recent past and the distant past, check out and type the following string into the search bar:

there is a pair,there are a pair,there is a bunch,there are a bunch

You can track the changes from 1800, up to 2008. Amongst other things, you'll notice that "pair" and "bunch" are (now) kind of flipped, and that "there are a bunch" overtook "there is a bunch" in 1983 -- the year I was born! I'm sure it's just a coincidence . . . probably. ;-)

Joel Swagman said...

Thanks again Stephan.

Interesting, I had never heard about the semantic argument.
So by this same logic, we could say sentences like "My family are very happy" ? Interesting.

Just out of curiosity, what would you say is the head of the noun phrase in the predicate?

Is it (as I suspected) that "pair" or "bunch" is the head noun, and that "of shoes" or "of bananas are prepositional phrases modifying pair and bunch?

Or is it (as my manager said) that "a pair of" and "a bunch of" are functioning as one lexical unit, and function as a modifier of "shoes" and "bananas"

Joel Swagman said...

Oh, by the way, I just went to that site. Wow, I had no idea that existed, but that is really cool to play around with.

Stephan Hurtubise said...

After a bit of research, it looks like the rabbit hole of when semantic agreement comes into play is at least as deep as the tag question chasm -- if not deeper. All I can say is that this choice between grammatical and semantic agreement doesn't appear to be totally random, but is difficult to characterize. For instance, to my ears, "My family are . . . " sounds pretty bad, and according to the Google Ngram Viewer, "My family is . . . " is a much more common phrase (by an order of magnitude); I would say, in this case, that grammatical agreement trumps semantic agreement. Similarly, it sounds much more natural to say "There is a committee . . . " as opposed to "There are a committee . . . "

Interestingly, there's dialectical variation on this. In British English, a word like "committee" sometimes allows plural agreement, in spite of the fact that it's grammatically singular. So, they can say "The committee have . . . " when, to me, "The committee has . . . " sounds much better. How all this works extends well past the limits of my knowledge (and my willingness to spend too much time reading about it). :-/

To your last question, you're right: naively, the structure of either "a pair of . . . " or "a bunch of . . . " should look like these:

[NP [Det a][N pair][PP of shoes]] & [NP [Det a][N bunch][PP of bananas]]

You can copy and paste each bracketed diagram here, to generate an easier-to-read image:

The story doesn't end there, mind you, since these are what are known as "partitive constructions." There's a lot more to be said about them, their syntax, and how they agree with the other elements in a sentence; though, again, it's a story that goes beyond my expertise far enough so that I hesitate saying anything more.

Joel Swagman said...

Thanks again for the help. I had never heard of Partitive constructions before, but I looked up them up on Wikipedia just now.

The difference between British and North American uses of collective nouns is something I've come across in my teaching materials as an ESL teacher before. If memory serves, I think the example used was "company"