Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Notional Number Agreement in English

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Notional Number Agreement in English

Article excerpt

To investigate the contested role of notional number in English subject-verb agreement, we used a sentence completion task to examine agreement with minimally different subject noun-phrases, such as the gang on the motorcycles and the gang near the motorcycles. These contrasting phrases biased different notional construals of collective nouns, such as gang, which are normally ambiguous between plural (distributed) and singular (collected) construals. With subjects biased toward spatial distribution, such as gang on motorcycles, more plural verbs occurred in speakers' sentence completions than in sentence completions with a bias toward spatial collection, such as gang near motorcycles. This offers strong evidence regarding both the existence and the magnitude of notional effects on subject-verb number agreement in English.

The traditional description of English subject-verb agreement is that verbs agree in number with the subjects of their clauses. Less clear is whether verbs agree with the notional or grammatical number of the subject, or both. Notional number is the numerosity of the subject's referent in the speaker's mental model, and grammatical number is the conventional linguistic number of the subject (head) noun. Examples of both kinds of agreement exist. For nouns like scissors, verb agreement seems to be grammatical (The scissors were/*was sharp); the word draws a plural verb despite the singularity of the referent. In other cases, agreement seems notional. Morgan (1972) gave the example bacon and eggs tastes good, in which singular tastes agrees not with the phrase's plural grammatical number, but with a notional construal of bacon and eggs as a set or name.

Controlled studies have investigated the balance between notional and grammatical agreement in English by providing subjects for speakers to complete as sentences and then noting the verb number used in the completions. These studies have yielded mixed effects. Bock and Miller (1991), replicated by Vigliocco, Butterworth, and Garrett (1996), found no effect of notional plurality when distributivity was manipulated, comparing distributive subjects like the label on the wine bottles with nondistributives like the key to the cabinets. Although both phrases are grammatically singular, the former is normatively taken to refer to multiple tokens of one type and the latter to a single token. In contrast, strong effects of distributivity have been found in Dutch, French, Spanish, and Italian (see Vigliocco, Butterworth, & Garrett, 1996; Vigliocco, Butterworth, & Semenza, 1995; Vigliocco, Hartsuiker, Jarema, & KoIk, 1996), inviting the hypothesis that the sparseness and simplicity of English agreement morphology make it comparatively insensitive to notional number (Vigliocco, Hartsuiker, et al., 1996).

At odds with this conclusion is a finding by Eberhard (1999) that notional number, when made more salient, does affect English verb agreement. Also challenging a purely grammatical account of English verb agreement is the fact that English speakers seem alert to the notional plurality latent in collective nouns (e.g., gang). With collective-noun subjects, American English speakers used plural verbs at a rate intermediate between the rates for regular singular and regular plural subjects (Bock, Nicol, & Cutting, 1999), suggesting some role for notional number.

Despite these findings, the effect of notional number on agreement remains unclear. Existing studies have employed materials that confounded notional number variations with other properties, thus making the actual notional effect uncertain. Completely different subject noun-phrases are used, as in the label and key examples above, with the notional contrast established intuitively or by norming (see Bock & Miller, 1991; Eberhard, 1999; Vigliocco, Butterworth, & Garrett, 1996; Vigliocco et al., 1995; Vigliocco, Hartsuiker, et al., 1996). In the best controlled test (Bock et al. …

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