9/19/2011

Ask Mr. Rewrite next time


Mr. Rewrite sure enjoys "Ask Marilyn" in Parade magazine. Her helpful answers and gentle manner always put him in the right frame of mind on Sunday afternoons, especially when the Arizona Cardinals don't. Longtime readers (thanks, Mom and Dad) know there's a "but" coming, and here it is ...

The columnist is erroneously defending her use of this phrase: "a few thousand feet don't make much difference." A reader rightly called her out on the agreement issue, and she answered as follows in response to a suggested alternative sentence:

The grammar was correct. Try substituting a different noun in the phrase, and you'll see. "A few thousand snowflakes don't make much difference." Correct, right? You probably don't think that the sentence should read, "A few thousand snowflakes doesn't make much difference."

Here's a link to the column.


Mr. Rewrite doesn't know where the columnist went for grammar advice, but the world's oldest and largest newsgathering organization disagrees with her. If she's referring to the few thousand feet as a unit rather than to each of the few thousand feet individually, she's creating a collective noun requiring a singular verb.

The answer lies in the AP Stylebook's entry on collective nouns. Some words that are plural in form, it notes, become collective nouns and take singular verbs when they refer to a unit. AP's example: "A thousand bushels is a good yield."

In Garner's Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner (cue angelic chorus) says those across the pond are less inclined to use collective nouns with singular verbs.

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