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I learned from some resources that notional agreement is not a rigid rule but rather a matter of preference. But they also suggest that there are times when notional agreement works better, and the use of formal agreement renders the sentence awkward. This usually happens when subjects are (1) plural nouns that have long taken singular verbs (politics, economics, civics, news, etc.); (2) modified by phrases such as a number of, the number of, or none of; (3) collective nouns that can take either plural or singular verb forms, depending on the intended meaning and the context (committee, crowd, family, generation, staff, jury, band, government, etc.); (4) plural expressions of distances, periods of time, or amounts of money (five years, five dollars, twenty kilometers, etc.); or (5) compound subjects of a singular nature (bed and breakfast).

I can easily apply notional agreement to the first four types of subjects, but I often have difficulty determining what counts as ''agreement'' when it comes to compound subjects. I know ''fish and chips,'' ''aiding and abetting,'' and ''peanut butter and jelly'' can act as singular. But if I were to write a construction in which the compound subject is completely novel or something I have never come across before, how could I know if the average native speaker would conceptualize it as something with a singular nature?

For example, I once wrote a sentence like ''The abuse and mistreatment humans impose on animals are utterly outrageous and deplorable.'' I used "are" because I thought it was the plural conjugation of to be that would agree with the plural subject "abuse and mistreatment." But then I was told that the phrase ''abuse and mistreatment'' sounds like a single abstract idea rather than a plural concept, so it would be more natural for the subject to take the singular verb ''is'' rather than the plural verb ''are.''

Salt and pepper, love and care, trial and tribulation, peace and quiet, peace and harmony, health and safety, research and development, law and order, trial and error, fame and wealth, news and information, time and chance... As a non-native speaker, I have no idea whether these compound subjects are thought of as a single unit or not. To me, the two words in each of the above examples all represent distinct, separate concepts.

I was also told by some native speakers that creative or metaphorical compound subjects can be quite flexible and may be treated as either a single entity or a plural subject. Examples include clarity and conciseness, creativity and innovation, functionality and efficiency, elegance and simplicity, grandiosity and bigness, honesty and integrity, flexibility and adaptability, and sustainability and eco-friendliness. Do you agree that all of them can take either notional agreement or formal agreement depending on the intended meaning?

Are there any rules for determining whether a compound subject represents a widely recognized unit or concept? Or is it something I can master only through language exposure and practice?

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  • Abuse and mistreatment looks like a tautology to me - an unnecessary use of a second word meaning exactly the same. Nov 4, 2023 at 10:17

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I would disagree with your statement that notional agreement is "not a rigid rule". The rule is that the verb and noun must agree. The seeming 'exceptions' you are describing are really just contexts where the agreement is not as obvious because of collective nouns, or where there is a choice as to how you present the same nouns - collected or not.

Collective nouns are nouns (sometimes compound nouns) which refer to a group of things but are treated as singular because the group as a whole is a single thing. These even confuse some native speakers, and a common question is whether such-and-such a musical group "is playing" or "are playing".

I'd have to say your example sentence is incorrect. It should be:

The abuse and mistreatment humans impose on animals are is utterly outrageous and deplorable.

In this sentence "abuse and mistreatment" is being presented as a single unit. They are related words, if not completely synonymous. But even if you argue that 'abuse' and 'mistreatment' are two separate things, you are generalising that "humans" are carrying them out. It makes no sense to separate the actions when you are grouping all the perpetrators together. You're saying this group of of people do these things.

So, no, it is not a "choice" - at least not a stylistic one. There is a right way to make a noun and a verb agree and that depends on what you are saying. Are you presenting items as a group? Or are you trying to emphasise the individuality of items in an existing group? For example "apples and pears are both fruits" clearly requires the two fruits to be treated separately because the word 'both' shows you are counting the two types; but "apple and pear crumble is a tasty dessert" is correct because the two foods are part of the compound name of a dish rather than two individual ingredients.

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  • Where I come from, the only people who are confused about whether a group are playing or a group is playing are those who have been misled into believing that there is a rigid rule, and they've got to get it "right". The rest of us just carry on talking English.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 5, 2023 at 23:15
  • @ColinFine Speaking English not 'talking'.
    – Astralbee
    Nov 6, 2023 at 12:37
  • Suit yourself, @Astralbee. I can talk English just as readily as I can speak it.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 6, 2023 at 14:09

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