November 1, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: cliché or idiom & subject-verb agreement

Posted in cliches, idioms, notional agreement, subject-verb agreement, synesis at 6:48 am by dlseltzer


As we all do, I get a ton of catalogues at this time of year. I was browsing through one when I spied a T-shirt that read:

Let’s eat Grandma!

Let’s eat, Grandma!

Commas matter.

Sort of says it all.

Tip 1: Cliché or idiom

A reader writes:

So where do we draw the line between cliché and idiom? From what I have seen, idioms can be imprecise but add to the overall thought by providing color or imagery. In a sense, can’t cliché do the same thing? Sorry. Had to play devil’s advocate for a minute to ask the question… hey, there’s another one!

Actually, the line the reader wants to draw is pretty hard to find. Idioms can become clichés and often do. Let’s start with some definitions. Both clichés and idioms are figures of speech. Idioms are a bit more than imprecise as the reader described them—they are groups of words that have a meaning other than the literal meaning of the words. For example, ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ doesn’t mean that animals are falling down on us—it means that it is raining hard—that is an idiom. It is easily understandable to Americans because we grew up with the expression, but for others, it may be harder to grasp. It’s also a cliché. How’s that? Well, a cliché is any figure of speech that has grown old and tired and well-worn. I don’t think that anyone would argue that ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ is at all fresh and adds sparkle to a discussion. That’s why I say, the line is pretty hard to find. In fact, idioms are almost by definition clichés. If the idiom has been around long enough that we all know what it means, it’s probably become clichéd. I am sure there are some exceptions, but I can’t think of any right now.

Now, just because we state that idioms are almost always clichés, that is not to say that all clichés are idioms. Clichés can even be single words (e.g., cool, cheesy) rather than phrases (e.g., it’s all good; when life gives you lemons, make lemonade), and clichés may mean exactly what the words mean (e.g., nobody is perfect, live and let live)—they are just so overused as to have become trite. We discussed clichés recently, but here are the rules for using clichés and idioms.

1. NEVER EVER use them in your formal scientific writing.

2. If you must use them in your less formal work, do it sparingly.

3. Before using them, think about whether there is a better way to say what you are trying to say.

And once more,

1. NEVER EVER use them in your formal scientific writing.

That should do it.

Tip 2: Agreement between subject and verb

In a paper that I read recently, I found these sentences:

After delineating the items, the complete set of items were reviewed by the research team to combine similar concepts and to eliminate redundancies.

The resulting list of items were then sorted  to create conceptually similar groupings.

I guess the title of this tip is a giveaway about what the mistake is. The author matched the verb to the noun closest to it, ‘items,’ but the important thing is the need for agreement between the subject of the sentence and the verb. The subject of the first sentence is ‘set,’ and the subject of the second sentence is ‘list.’ Both of these words are singular and take the singular verb, ‘was.’

However, there are exceptions to this. There are actually times when you don’t want subject-verb agreement.

I have a couple of new terms for some of you: synesis and notional agreement. The good news is they mean the same thing. Synesis (and notional agreement) is the grammatical term for  using the meaning or sense of the words for determining subject-verb agreement instead of the traditional rules. It usually comes into play when it comes to collective nouns that refer to some type of quantity, such as number, total, majority, range, etc. Garner cleverly calls it (synesis) the “triumph of logic over grammar.” Imagine, thinking about what the words mean instead of blindly following the rules.

In the same paper that I mentioned previously, I found this sentence.

Once combined and redundancies eliminated, there were a total of 96 exclusive items.

Even though ‘total’ is really the subject of the sentence and a singular subject normally calls for a singular verb, synesis or notional agreement suggests that that total is referring to the 96 items, and a plural verb makes more sense when the meaning is considered.

Here are a few other examples.

A lot of students were lined up to go to the game.

There were a number of successful experiments.

A percentage of the outcomes are negative.

At first glance, the subjects (‘lot,’ ‘number,’ ‘percentage’) are singular and take a singular verb, but how do these sentence sound?

A lot of students was lined up to go to the game.

There was a number of successful experiments.

A percentage of the outcomes is negative.

Oh my.

This is where synesis comes in, and we use a verb that matches the plural noun that is the object of the preposition, ‘of’ (‘students,’ ‘experiments,’ ‘outcomes’) instead.

We do this quite naturally in our speech, but often err in writing where we are more cognizant of the rules of grammar, and we don’t have the opportunity to hear how wrong the words sound.

So remember synesis, or, when in doubt, read the sentence out loud. That should tell you whether a singular or plural verb is called for.




  1. John Mendeloff said,

    Deb–I remain confused about collective nouns; “staff” is the prime example. The computer’s program always says it should be singular.
    The staff was unhappy.
    All of the staff was unhappy [?}
    All of the staff members were unhappy

    • dlseltzer said,

      I will write this up for next week. But if you have Word’s grammar checker on, turn it off. It sucks. Generally, the rule for collective nouns is this: if they (the members of the collective noun) are acting individually, the verb is plural, and if they are acting as a unit, the noun is singular.

  2. Jessica-Jean said,

    Hmm … saying it aloud only works if my ears hear it the same way your do. I happen to think that the third example (percentage of outcomes) sounds more correct with the singular verb. My ears and yours agree on the other two though. Strange. Older ears? I’m 66.

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