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singular verb/plural noun

English translation: it depends...

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13:34 Feb 5, 2009
English to English translations [PRO]
Art/Literary - Linguistics
English term or phrase: singular verb/plural noun
Is it possible to use a singular verb with regard to a plural noun if one can justify an allusion to a greater, overall singular noun?
The context:
Then Bob shows her something she’d never noticed before: on the surface of the water, there are small silent explosions making circular ripples. At first Mary looks up at the sky, because she thinks it IS raindrops. But the sky is blue. Then she realizes, iit IS bubbles coming up from the bottom and bursting at the surface of the water. Bob says it IS the fish breathing, but Mary thinks it IS probably the plants.

My sense of grammar tells me I should substitute are for is (she thinks they ARE raindrops, etc.). However, I know that in spoken English people would say this kind of thing. Can it be justified by saying that the use of the singular verb is an allusion to the cause of the phenomena?
i.e. she thinks the phenomena (of the explosions) is due to raindrops?
I.e. she realizes the penomena is due to bubbles
i.e. Bob says the phenomena is caused by the fish breathing.
i.e. Mary thinks the phenomena is probably caused by the plants.

Thank you in advance for your thoughts.
C. Dickson
Local time: 10:35
English translation:it depends...
Explanation:
...on the wording and the register

'it is xxx' is often used in vernacular language to describe a situation (famous examples: it's raining, it's cold, it's windy). IMO the last sentence of your text is an instance of this, and there's no need to change it.

However, in the other instances I think you would do better to reword this slightly (and your text will read better if you don't constantly use the same construction). May I suggest:

Then Bob shows her something she never noticed before: on the surface of the water, there are small silent explosions making circular ripples. At first Mary looks up at the sky, because she thinks this is caused by raindrops, but the sky is blue. Then she realizes that bubbles are rising from the bottom and bursting at the surface. Bob says it is the fish breathing, but Mary thinks it is probably the plants.

Selected response from:

Ken Cox
Local time: 10:35
Grading comment
Thanks to every one for their comments and discussions. I would especially like to thank Marta France whose comments on tone were very perceptive and whose reference to the empty subject were extremely helpful.
4 KudoZ points were awarded for this answer

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Summary of answers provided
3 +9it is
Egil Presttun
4 +7it depends...Ken Cox
5she thought there were raindrops ( your tense is incorrect)
Gary D
3 +1it is ...TonyTK
4they aremargaret caulfield
Summary of reference entries provided
Practical English Usage - Michael SwanMarta France

Discussion entries: 7





  

Answers


11 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5
they are


Explanation:
I'd honestly sat you should state that THEY ARE RAINDROPS, THEY ARE BUBBLES.

margaret caulfield
Local time: 10:35
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish, Native in SpanishSpanish
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13 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 3/5Answerer confidence 3/5 peer agreement (net): +9
it is


Explanation:
it (the phenomena) is
You can't say "it are".

That's my way of understanding this.

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Note added at 15 mins (2009-02-05 13:49:59 GMT)
--------------------------------------------------

Sorry, I meant to say: it (the phenomenon) is. It is one phenomenon.

Egil Presttun
Norway
Local time: 10:35
Native speaker of: Norwegian

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  Nesrin: Agree (from one non-native English speaker to the other :-) )
4 mins
  -> Thanks!

agree  kathryn davies
7 mins
  -> Thanks!

agree  Jack Doughty
9 mins
  -> Thanks!

agree  David Moore
10 mins
  -> Thanks!

agree  Lidia Saragaço
25 mins
  -> Thanks!

agree  Suzan Hamer: that it is "it is" but for reason given in discussion by Kathryn.
2 hrs
  -> Thanks!

agree  Ingeborg Gowans
2 hrs
  -> Thanks!

agree  Nicole Y. Adams, M.A.
3 hrs
  -> Thanks!

agree  Phong Le
11 hrs
  -> Thanks!
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24 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 3/5Answerer confidence 3/5 peer agreement (net): +1
it is ...


Explanation:
... is correct IMO (and off the top of my head), because if you expressed the idea in full it would be:

" ... because she thinks it is raindrops (that are causing the ripples)"

and

"... she realizes, it is bubbles coming up from the bottom and bursting at the surface of the water (that are causing the ripples)"

If you use "they are", then surely you're saying "the ripples are raindrops" or "the explosions are raindrops" and that makes no sense - to me, at least.


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Note added at 25 Min. (2009-02-05 14:00:09 GMT)
--------------------------------------------------

Maybe I'm saying the same thing as Egil but just in a more prole-like way.

TonyTK
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  Fiorsam: I like the explanation. The use of the singular is like the expression "si tratta di" in Italian
23 mins
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31 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5 peer agreement (net): +7
it depends...


Explanation:
...on the wording and the register

'it is xxx' is often used in vernacular language to describe a situation (famous examples: it's raining, it's cold, it's windy). IMO the last sentence of your text is an instance of this, and there's no need to change it.

However, in the other instances I think you would do better to reword this slightly (and your text will read better if you don't constantly use the same construction). May I suggest:

Then Bob shows her something she never noticed before: on the surface of the water, there are small silent explosions making circular ripples. At first Mary looks up at the sky, because she thinks this is caused by raindrops, but the sky is blue. Then she realizes that bubbles are rising from the bottom and bursting at the surface. Bob says it is the fish breathing, but Mary thinks it is probably the plants.



Ken Cox
Local time: 10:35
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 47
Grading comment
Thanks to every one for their comments and discussions. I would especially like to thank Marta France whose comments on tone were very perceptive and whose reference to the empty subject were extremely helpful.
Notes to answerer
Asker: Yes, very helpful, thank you. I'll probably use a combination of your and other's solutions in the end.


Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  carolynf: absolutely, Ken, the perfect solution here
47 mins

agree  Suzan Hamer: Yes, a very good alternative.
2 hrs

agree  Gunilla Zedigh
3 hrs

agree  Tina Vonhof: very nice.
5 hrs

agree  Lalit Sati
5 hrs

neutral  Marta France: I see where you're coming from, changing the wording may improve it. But it changes the tone slightly, and maybe the original author wanted the sense of simplicity, of repetition. Without more context I'm not sure.
9 hrs
  -> true; the author may have intentionaly used a naive, vernacular tone

agree  Alanna Wilson-Duff: I agree with this idiomatic rewording, it flows very naturally. An alternative is to add FROM, i.e. she thinks it's FROM raindrops, etc.
11 hrs

agree  Polangmar
1 day13 hrs
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9 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 5/5
she thought there were raindrops ( your tense is incorrect)


Explanation:
I believe it should be written like this: It depends on if it is reported speech or narrative speech. But as a native speaker It sounds better like this.

At first... first thought was..

Bursting on the surface... near, Just below, on, just above or above, not at.

probably from the plants... the bubbles need to come from something.
As Bob didn't say it was FROM the fish and just said it was the fish, you would have to say, Mary thought / thinks it was FROM something else.

"Then Bob shows her something she’d never noticed before: on the surface of the water, there were small silent explosions making circular ripples. At first Mary looks up at the sky, because she thought they were raindrops, but the sky is blue, then she realizes the bubbles are coming up from the bottom and bursting on the surface of the water. Bob says it's the fish breathing, but Mary thinks it's probably from the plants."

I know there will be a bit of debate on this, But it is my opinion as a native speaker. If it was in a story book, a play or similar it would have to be this way.

--------------------------------------------------
Note added at 9 hrs (2009-02-05 22:51:10 GMT)
--------------------------------------------------

then she realizes the bubbles are ... second thought is..

--------------------------------------------------
Note added at 19 hrs (2009-02-06 08:59:43 GMT)
--------------------------------------------------

Do a time line on your story.

he shows her... she never saw before..... there were....... at first.....looks up....then she realizes..... are coming......bob Says......Mary Thinks ..

Narrated speech or it is close to being reported speech, certainly third party, therefore it has already happened and is not present perfect.

Gary D
Local time: 18:35
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 8
Notes to answerer
Asker: Thanks for your suggestion, but I really don't understand why you would mix present simple (shows; looks; is; realizes; says; thinks) with past simple (were; thought). To me this doesn't make sense at all.(?)

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Reference comments


26 mins peer agreement (net): +1
Reference: Practical English Usage - Michael Swan

Reference information:
An excerpt from this handy reference book under the heading Personal Pronouns (entry 424.7):
IT as an "empty subject":
We use IT as a meaningless subject with expressions that refer to time, weather, temperature, distances, or just the current situation.
Eg: It's ten miles to the nearest petrol station.

I *think* M. Swan's example would cover your situation.

Instinctively my answer to your question would be to keep the singular, if it sounds right. That, surely, is the ultimate test, especially in a literary context?

Marta France
United Kingdom
Native speaker of: English

Peer comments on this reference comment (and responses from the reference poster)
agree  Sheila Wilson: agree 100%, and it sounds fine to me as it is
3 hrs
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Changes made by editors
Feb 5, 2009 - Changes made by writeaway:
Field (specific)Poetry & Literature » Linguistics
Feb 5, 2009 - Changes made by Stéphanie Soudais:
Language pairFrench to English » English


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