July 7, 2011
Weekly Language Usage Tips: The great majority is or are (collective nouns) & uncomparable or absolute adjectives
Follow-up on email etiquette
To finish our discussion on email, I wanted to provide you with a couple of links to interesting articles. The first is a link to an email charter with ten rules intended to ‘reduce the email spiral.’ http://emailcharter.org/index.html There is a link on the page for joining the mailing list for the site. If you are foolish enough (like me) to click on that link, here is the message you receive:
Don’t do this!
The last thing you need is another email newsletter!
In fact, we pledge never to email you.
(Now please go unsubscribe from the other newsletters you never read.)
The second link is to David Pogue’s column in the New York Times reacting to the charter. http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/we-have-to-fix-e-mail/?ref=personaltechemail&nl=technology&emc=cta1 called, “We have to fix email.’ And Pogue clearly know the problem. He begins his column by reporting that “At this moment, there are 1,944 unanswered messages in the Inbox of my private account, and 2,730 in the Inbox of my public account.” Yikes. I am going to stop complaining now.
Finally, a colleague sent me an email with a question about language usage, and she ended the subject line with the words (Action Needed). I liked that because it told me that she needed the information right away.
Tip 1. A great majority is or are (collective nouns)
A reader writes:
I am preparing a manuscript, and I want to say, “A great majority of those surveyed drives/drive or rides/ride a bus rather than walks/walk,” but since the subject of the sentence is ‘majority’ meaning ‘most of the respondents,’ I can’t decide if I should use singular or plural verbs.
‘Majority’ is a collective noun that can take either a plural or singular verb depending on the context. If it refers to individual items or people acting individually, it requires a plural verb.
The majority are going to prepare either desserts or appetizers.
Since they are preparing different courses, it is apparent that the people here are acting as individuals and not as a unit.
When acting as a group, a singular verb is needed.
The majority supports the new legislation.
Here, we don’t have any information to differentiate the supporters, so we treat them as a collective unit and use a singular verb.
In the example provided by the reader, the phrase, ‘the majority of those surveyed’ provides the clue: those people were surveyed and answered the questions individually, so a plural verb is needed.
A great majority of those surveyed drive or ride a bus rather than walk.
In general, if you use the verb form that sounds best to you, you won’t go wrong.
But before we move on to Tip 2, I have another issue with this sentence. You knew this was coming, right?
What pains me is the phrase ‘a great majority.’ I’ve often talked about the importance of precision in writing, particularly in our academic and scientific writing, and ‘a great majority’ is hardly precise. We know that ‘majority’ means more than half, so ‘ a great majority’ would mean much more than half, but how much more? Would 60% constitute a great majority? Would 70%? 90%? And which is more: a great majority or a vast majority? You see my dilemma—a great majority is so vague that it is essentially meaningless to the reader. The use of an actual number or percentage would be much more helpful here. Let’s agree to eschew vague descriptors and focus, instead, on precision and accuracy.
Tip 2. Uncomparable or absolute adjectives
We’ve talked about ‘unique’ in the past. The quality of being ‘unique’ is absolute, that is, something is unique or not—there are no degrees of ‘uniqueness.’ Something cannot be very or somewhat ‘unique.’ This type of absolute adjective is often called an uncomparable adjective because it cannot be used with comparative suffixes (i.e., er, ier, est), and it should not be used with adjectives of comparison such as more, most, less, somewhat, or least nor should it be intensified by words such as very, largely, or quite.
[NOTE: The AMA Manual of Style calls this kind of adjective an incomparable adjective, which, to me, is a misnomer because incomparable means matchless, unequalled, beyond comparison, and that is not the same thing.]
The reason I bring this up is because I disagree. Not about the comparative suffixes; I wouldn’t use those. But this is an area of language usage that I see evolving.
The AMA Style Manual frowns on using adjectives of intensity or comparison with these words:
absolute ambiguous comprehensive
entire equal eternal
expert final infinite
omnipotent original preferable
pregnant supreme total
I won’t quibble with most of AMA’a choices of uncomparable adjectives. They are fairly absolute. (Notice how I modified absolute right there? Absolute is one of the words that AMA says not to modify in this fashion? Can’t I say fairly absolute?) And what about original? Couldn’t you say least original? And what about comprehensive? Couldn’t something be the most comprehensive?
Garner goes even further. His set of common uncomparable adjectives includes:
absolute adequate chief
complete devoid entire
false fatal favorite
final ideal impossible
inevitable infinite irrevocable
main manifest only
paramount perfect perpetual
possible preferable principal
singular stationary sufficient
unanimous unavoidable unbroken
uniform unique universal
Here, I would say that it’s possible to modify complete, possible, uniform, adequate, favorite, impossible, sufficient, and perhaps some of the others.
My feeling is that 1) context makes a difference and 2) the way words are used often changes over time, and we should embrace that. For example, I agree that something is either original or it is not, but I also see no problem with saying, ‘Of the five pieces of music I have, that one is the least original.’
I bring this up first, to make you aware that some language usage experts feel strongly about not modifying these ‘uncomparable’ words, and second, to see what you think about the subject.