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Dozen: Singular or Plural?

Referring to a recent post, a reader wants to know why I wrote, “Here are a dozen common subordinating conjunctions” and not, “Here is a dozen common subordinating conjunctions.”

Because I was referring to what I regard as twelve distinct conjunctions with different uses, I treated dozen as a plural.

Dozen is a collective noun, like committee. Collective nouns name groups of people or items. If the group is seen as identical or as acting in unison, the noun is treated as singular. If individuals in the group do not act in unison, the collective noun is treated as plural. For example:

The committee has agreed to appropriate money for new sidewalk.

The committee are in disagreement as to the importance of a new sidewalk.

The same rule applies to dozen. If dozen is regarded as a group of undifferentiated items, it takes a singular verb and singular pronouns. If dozen refers to a collection of individual persons or things, it takes a plural verb and pronouns.

On the Google Ngram Viewer, the construction “Here are a dozen” far outnumbers “Here is a dozen,” but the reverse is true in a Web search.

Although common, the singular construction “here is a dozen” is unidiomatic when it is followed by what are clearly distinct items. The construction is often used to introduce lists, as in these examples:

Here is a dozen top aquariums around the country.

Here is a dozen resources for every student.

The decision to regard dozen as singular or plural ultimately lies with the writer.

If the dozen consists of items that differ from one another in some marked way, then dozen should be regarded as plural. For example, the aquariums are all in different cities; the resources are of different kinds.

Better:

Here are a dozen top aquariums around the country.

Here are a dozen resources for every student.

The writer’s decision should be made on the basis of the noun that follows dozen and not because dozen is preceded by the indefinite article a.

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Daily Writing Tips

Any

A reader asks,

If a countable noun comes after any, then should it [the noun] be singular or plural?

Like the indefinite article a/an, the word any derives from a form of the Old English word for one. Primarily an adjective, it is also used as a pronoun.

As an adjective, any is most commonly followed by plural or uncountable nouns:

In questions:
Do you have any tomatoes for sale? (plural noun)
Baa, baa Black Sheep, have you any wool? (uncountable noun)

In negative statements:
I don’t have any books by that author. (plural noun)
The lion didn’t have any courage. (uncountable noun)

In conditional statements:
If your final draft contains any errors, it will be rejected. (plural noun)
If you need any help with the proofing, let me know. (uncountable noun)

Sometimes any is used to modify a singular countable noun:

Any fourth-grader should be able to read that book.

Any grammar book will have a section on relative pronouns.

In these sentences, any is used in the sense of every:

Every fourth-grader should be able to read that book.

Every grammar book will have a section on relative pronouns.

Sometimes a singular countable noun follows any in a question:

Is there any rule that says I can’t dye my hair green?

Is there any reason you slam the screen door every time you go through it?

In the above contexts, the speaker does not anticipate more than one rule or reason, if any. On the other hand, a speaker who anticipates that there could be several rules or reasons would follow any with a plural noun:

Are there any rules against further construction in this neighborhood?

Are there any reasons we shouldn’t require job applicants to submit samples of their writing?

As a pronoun, any stands for a noun that has already been expressed, or when it is followed by the preposition of:

Of all the books I have read, this one is more memorable than any.

If there are any of the pecans left after the sale, you may have them.

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Daily Writing Tips

Redact

A reader has requested a discussion of the word redact:

Your article on degrade…reminded me of redact, a verb whose meaning is shifting because the usual context in which it is used nowadays is when a document is partially censored or has portions elided. Perhaps you would like to do an article on redact.

The current use of redact to mean “elide or delete” is not so much a shifting of meaning as the development of a narrowed meaning that exists in addition to other established meanings.

The earliest OED citations of redact (1475) show it used in the sense of “to combine”:

Romulus redacte alle the cites in to oon.
[Romulus redacted all the cities into one.]

The Romanes didde redresse and redacte these lawes of Salon in to x tables.
[The Romans did redress (reform) and redact these laws of Solon into ten tables.]

The sense of redact to mean, “to combine ideas and writings,” developed to mean, “to prepare a text for publication.”

The noun redaction (something that has been edited for publication) is first recorded in the 18th century.

Both redact and redaction continue to be used to refer to the act of editing in the sense that editing includes collecting, organizing, and deleting portions of texts that are being readied for publication.

A special branch of biblical study is called “redaction criticism.” It concerns itself with the motives of the people who compiled, edited, and organized texts into their existing state.

When government censors are called upon to redact soldiers’ letters during wartime, or to prepare classified documents for public release, the only aspect of editing that concerns them is deletion. A document “redacted” by a censor may have words and whole paragraphs blacked out. For that reason, the words redact and redaction have come to be synonymous with delete and censorship in the minds of many speakers.

Not all dictionaries have caught up with this use of redact. The paid versions of M-W and OED that I use do not recognize the new usage.

The free M-W Online, on the other hand, offers these definitions:

redact:
1. to put in writing
2. to select or adapt (as by obscuring or removing sensitive information) for publication or release
3. to obscure or remove (text) from a document prior to publication or release

In addition to their use to refer to the censoring of sensitive documents, redact and redaction have become computer terms:

The technique of Blacking out parts of screenshots and other images is called Redaction. Being able to blackout, or redact, parts of an image is easily done with the Preview App that is always shipped out on all Mac computers.

Click and hold your mouse down at one end of the text you want to black out (redact).

Context should provide the necessary clue to how redact and redaction are being used. For example:

As Professor Chauvin remarks in an Appendix to that work, the Persian redaction of this tale was made in modern times.

The Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board voted to redact pages from its textbooks tied to abortion and reproduction.

The [Carolingian] writer of these notes had plans to redact them into a set text, but never really got to do so.

The only caveat I would offer regarding the use of redact in the sense of obliterate is to avoid the tautology “redact out”:

If I scan a page and want to go in and redact out 10 blemishes, I have to keep going to the menu to select “mark for redaction” each time.

Please redact out references to social security numbers and birth date on transcript copies.

 

Redact is a transitive verb:

I want to go in and redact 10 blemishes.

Please redact references to social security numbers.

No out needed.

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Daily Writing Tips

Malarkey Doesn’t Mean That

In a recent television ad for a cell phone service, potential customers are shown as being afraid of “hidden fees,” “funny business,” and “bamboozling.” The agent asks, “What is bamboozling?” A potential customer says, “It’s like malarkey.”

The ad bothers me because bamboozling is a gerund and malarkey is an ordinary noun. I’d prefer something like this:

Agent: What is bamboozling?
Customer: It’s trying to trick us by feeding us a bunch of malarkey.

But then, I suppose the extra words would drive up the price of the ad.

The verb bamboozle is noted in English as early as 1700, in a Tatler article complaining about the invasion of slang terms. The OED definition of the verb bamboozle is “to deceive by trickery; to perplex or confuse.”

The definition in Merriam-Webster is, “to conceal one’s true motives from someone, especially by elaborately feigning good intentions so as to gain an end or achieve an advantage.”

The first OED citation for malarkey is 1924; the most recent, 2000. It’s defined as “humbug, bunkum, nonsense.”

Malarkey is any idea or utterance seen as “trivial, misleading, or not worthy of consideration.” M-W defines malarkey as “insincere or pretentious talk or writing designed to impress one and usually to distract attention from ulterior motives or actual conditions.”

A person intent on bamboozling someone might employ malarkey in the effort to deceive, but bamboozling and malarkey are not quite synonyms.

Synonyms for the verb bamboozle:
trick
deceive
delude
hoodwink
mislead
take in
dupe
fool
double-cross
cheat
defraud
swindle
gull
hoax
entrap
con
bilk
shaft
flimflam

Synonyms for the noun malarkey:
rubbish
gibberish
claptrap
balderdash
hogwash
baloney
rot
moonshine
garbage
jive
tripe
drivel
bull
bunk/bunkum
BS
hokum
twaddle
gobbledygook

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Daily Writing Tips

An Came First

A reader writes:

I propose that “an” was invented to prevent us from having to interrupt the flow of speech. And it still fills that purpose before unaccented first syllables starting with h.

This comment suggests that the indefinite article form an developed from the form a as a means of facilitating pronunciation.

Unlike Esperanto, English is not an invented language, but the product of more than a thousand years of development. An was not invented to facilitate the flow of language. Neither did it begin its life as “an indefinite article.” It started out as a numeric adjective.

The English indefinite article a/an derives from the Old English word for one: ane. The word was written ane, anne, aenne and aene in its various declensions. As it evolved into our modern indefinite article, sometimes it signified the number one and sometimes the article a.

For example, in an OE version of the New Testament parable of the workmen who are all paid the same for different amounts of work, the owner of the vineyard pays them “anne pening,” that is, “one penny.” In the account of the voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, Ohthere refers to Skiringssal as “an port,” that is, “a port.”

Even in modern usage, the article a/an can be used in the sense of “one,” as in, “I’ll have a hamburger, a cherry Coke, and two orders of fries.”

Like the reader whose comment prompted this post, some modern speakers feel that that an “still fills [a] purpose before unaccented first syllables starting with h.” According to a note in the OED, “many (perhaps most) writers down to the 19th century retained an before sounded h and some even before eu, u, as “an historian,” “an euphonic vowel,” and “an united appeal.” Most modern usage guides, however, recommend a. That’s not to say that you can’t say “an historic” if you want to.

Related posts:
A Useful Reminder About An
A Historic vs. An Historic

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