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I'm writing a codebook that defines variables in a data set. Should the verb of the following sentence be singular or plural (refer/refers)? (Note that the italics appear in original; they are, obviously, the variable name.)

Other types of residential treatment facility refers to facilities not licensed as a psychiatric hospital, whose primary purpose is ...

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This is a case where the way English handles the "use/mention distinction" is important. See, without the italics, quotes, or any other distinguishing marks, you could use the words directly just as you normally do and make a grammatical and almost semantically coherent sentence like this (verb bolded):

Other types of residential treatment facility refer to facilities not licensed as a psychiatric hospital, whose primary purpose is ...

The only problem with this would be that the types here do not in fact refer; they actually are.

So what you're really trying to do is say this (verb bolded, elided phrase in brackets):

[The label/codeword/phrase/term] "other types of residential treatment facility" refers to facilities not licensed as a psychiatric hospital, whose primary purpose is ...

Once you realize that there's implicitly a singular noun that introduces the mention of the phrase you italicized, but is elided in the actual sentence, it becomes much clearer how this sentence should be written (verb bolded):

Other types of residential treatment facility refers to facilities not licensed as a psychiatric hospital, whose primary purpose is ...

A phrase that you are mentioning, not using, is considered one phrase. It's singular. So you use singular conjugations with it. (This is a little clearer when using quotes, since that's a more common way to mention a phrase, but italics, bold, underlines, and even different font families have been used for the purpose as well, so there's nothing wrong with the sentence being written this way.)

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  • Thanks; this confirms my analysis — singular noun head ellipsis — and settles a disagreement. Jun 19 '18 at 21:18
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Subject NOUN of the sentence is TYPES. "Of residential treatment facility" is a prepositional phrase that does not determine verb tense. REFER is the appropriate verb.

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The head noun of the noun phrase Other types of residential treatment facility is types which is plural. Thus, it takes refer

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  • But the sentence is referring the entire phrase "Other types of residential treatment facility", not literally to the types themselves, so the singular refers is appropriate, not the plural refer.
    – stangdon
    Jun 15 '18 at 19:11
  • @stangdon We have to find the head noun in the complex/long noun phrases to choose the right form of the verb. Otherwise, as you suggested, all the noun phrases, no matter they are, should be treated as a whole unit. So, we don't need to what is so-called concord or subject-verb agreement in this case at all !!! Jun 15 '18 at 21:26

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