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What Kind of Rule Is Usually?
A thought-provoking inquiry showed up recently in our inbox:
I can’t decide which verb is correct in sentences like the following. Would I write There are three kilograms of flour in the kitchen or There is three kilograms of flour in the kitchen? Two meters of fabric is here or Two meters of fabric are here?
A staff member submitted this response:
A quantity of weight or measure is singular when considered as a unit. Therefore, write There is three kilograms of flour and Two meters of fabric is here.
That solution did not sit well with everybody. Both “correct” sentences sounded too bizarre to recommend.
True, amounts and measurements often take singular verbs. We say, “Here is that five dollars I owe you,” not “Here are those five dollars
I owe you.” A Dickensian excerpt we found online gets to the crux of the matter: “Seven bright pennies were exposed on the grubby palm, but
seven pennies was not enough for a candy bar.”
We went to several websites, and noticed some hedging: “Words expressing periods of time, weights, measurements, and amounts of money usually take a
singular verb,” said one site. Another said “there does not appear to be universal agreement about this topic.” In other words, this is a
rule, but only “usually.” (We also saw a lot of “generally” and “sometimes.”)
The National Geographic Style Manual recommended ten gallons is enough, but also ten dishfuls were slowly doled out. The manual
preferred ten gallons is because ten gallons is “considered as a mass”—but many would see the ten dishfuls as
a unit also.
Other sites were similarly murky. One recommended six months is needed to complete the assignment but also endorsed six months have passed since the assignment. Why not has passed, as in [a period of] six months has passed? Another approved both ten dollars is the entry fee and ten dollars were tucked in the mattress.
When a “rule” is this subjective, maybe it should be downgraded to “guideline.”
Back to the original problem—There is three kilograms of flour and Two meters of fabric is here may be technically correct, but
they sound terrible. The sensible solution is to recast the sentences: Three kilograms of flour can be found in the kitchen. I have two meters of fabric here.
There’s everything to gain and nothing to lose by rewriting ghastly sentences, even if they happen to be grammatical.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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Police were called to a day care center where a three-year-old was resisting a rest.
Did you hear about the fellow whose whole left side was cut off? He's all right now.
A bicycle can't stand alone; it is two tired.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.