March 12, 2015
Weekly Language Usage Tips: keep or keeps
A reader writes:
I have a question for you that I’m hoping your grammar expertise can help. I can’t seem to find a straight answer online and I know that you will know the right answer.
We are debating on the wording for our study pamphlet using the word “keep”.
We can’t agree if the sentence below should read “keep” or “keeps”?
What do you say?
Pleasant Activities of the Week
Write down pleasant activities you do on each day. Count the number of activities at the end of each day. Remember, 4 a day keeps the blues away!
Oh dear, my answer to this is going to be controversial. Be kind, grammar police.
Let’s start by reminding everyone that numbers are abstract concept represented by numerals. I’ve written this up in some detail before, so I am not going to get into detail here, but you can always find my previous discussions at https://languagetips.wordpress.com. Just look up numbers/numerals.
Four, 4, and iv are all numerals representing the concept of 4. Is four or 4 singular or plural? The answer, my friends, is both. It depends on a lot of things—whether it is a noncount noun or a count noun, whether you are referring to the numeral or the number, whether it is acting as an adjective or a noun. There are probably some more things that affect whether it is plural or not, but that’s enough for now.
Let’s look at some examples:
4 is bigger than 2.
is bigger than 7.
4 is luckier than 13.
NOTE: Now, I know, as I hope all of you do, that we should spell out a numeral at the beginning of a sentence, but that’s not really important for this discussion. Just know, that in your writing, you should spell it out.
Back to the examples,
Of that group of girls over there, 4 are going to try out for the Olympics.
Four are going to be left behind.
That last example leads us back to the reader ‘s question. If we wrote:
Four is going to be left behind or 4 is going to left behind,
We would assume that the number, 4, or somebody named Four was going to be left behind. In the reader’s example, we know that 4 represents “the pleasant activities you do on each day,” so to be grammatically correct, the line should read:
Remember, 4 a day keep the blues away!
However, and you promised to be kind, grammar police, this is the advice I gave:
Remember, 4 a day keeps the blues away!
‘Keeps’ is what you should use. It is not great grammar, but to the ear, it’s better. We’re used to the formation , ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away,’ and even though 4 is plural (because we know you are referring to the pleasant activities), for something that is for the general public like the brochure you are creating, this will sound right, and ‘keep’ would not. I’ll write it up for a wlut.
And this is that wlut.
NOTE: For anyone for whom English is a second language, you probably want to ignore this wlut—it will only lead to confusion.