Grammar: Minor Number-Agreement Question

Over in the Atlantis thread, I wrote: “…there appears to have been no submerged lands in the Atlantic…” and I’ve been looking at that with some sense of confusion since.

First, “to appear to have been” is a complex copulative verb, meaning “no submerged lands” is effectively the subject.

However, despite its plural form, I seem to have meant it as a collective singular, the equivalent of “no piece of land [that is a real-life analog to Atlantis].”

So: “appears” or “appear”? And why that choice? Advice from writers and editors welcomed.

It should be “appear.” “No” serves as a number. Change “no submerged lands” to “zero” or “seven submerged lands” and you’ll see what I mean. It would only be “appears” if the number was one (or if there was an indefinite article implying a single land…i.e. “…a submerged land…”).

I’d say “appear” too. Swap out with a different verb and you get plural agreement; e.g., “There were no submerged lands in the Atlantic.” You wouldn’t write *“There was no submerged lands.” So by analogy, you use “appear.”

Of course, I’d probably rewrite the thing: “It appears that there were no submerged lands” or somesuch. Or heck, stop waffling: “There ain’t never been no submerged lands in the Atlantic, dawg!” And then snap your fingers to hammer your irrefutable point home.

One more vote for appear.

Of course, if you had a real attachment to ‘appears’ you could write, “There appears to have been no submerged land mass in the Atlantic”.

I’d say “appear”. But for the life of me I can’t say why. Note that the object of a copula is a verbal compliment, even if it’s not really a direct object the way most such verbs appear. So you’re matching the number on “appear” not to the subject (which is the epithet “there” in this instance) but to the compliment of a compliment of the verb.

My syntax classes never covered anything like this.

Help me out with this please…

There appears to be no answer.

There appear to be no answers.

both of those seem right to me, if that is true wouldn’t Poly be correct if it were either

there appear to have been no submerged lands in the Atlantic


there appears to have been no submerged land in the Atlantic

Both are correct in both examples. Just match the verb to the subject (either “answer” or “appear”). Sometimes it helps to work these things out by putting the verb directly after the subject (“no answers appear to be there”).

It doesn’t appear to me as though anyone on the thread would disagree with you here. :slight_smile:


I think “there appears to be” functions analogously to “there is.” I don’t have a name for that function, but I can describe it.

In “There is one dog,” the conjugation of the copula is determined by the content of the noun phrase “one dog.” So goes it also for “There appears to be one dog.”

“There” might be the subject of these sentences in what we might call “gradeschool grammar,” but I think it must not actually be the grammatical subject, precisely because it’s not doing anything to determine the conjugation.

Anyway, my vote is for “appear” as well, though I bet if you said “appears” while you and I were talking, I’d never even notice it.


Isn’t “there” an adverb in this case?

Both of those are right, BIPPY, as you can see if you put the sentences in the active voice: “No answer [singular] appears,” “no answers [plural] appear.”

The issue in POLY’s example is that there is a bit of an inconsistency in saying “no lands.” As DIO pointed out “no ” = “not one ” = a singular thing. So it’s not hyper-technically correct to say “no lands;” the more correct phrase would be “no land.” So the problem is that a phrase “no ” generally calls for the present tense singular (“appears”) but a plurual subject (“lands”) calls for the present tense plural (“appear”), leading to confusion when you have a plural subject in a phrase that generally calls for the singular.

However, the truth is that these days people do use the plural in this way and, if it is used, I think the use of the plural verb sounds better and makes more sense. Again, it’s easier to see if you rearrange the sentences to the active tense: “No lands appear” versus “no lands appears”. Whatever the “no + rule,” “Lands appears” just looks and sounds wrong. So I’d go with “appear,” though to be honest I would have said “no land appears,” not “no lands.”

Since you asked. :slight_smile:

You can fight it out with my various syntax books if you like. I’m calling it the subject because it’s generally described that way in grammars I’ve seen; it’s possible there’s some controversy over that categorization, but I haven’t seen it. Core Syntax: A Minimalist Approach by David Adger treats this “There is” construction as an unaccusative verb, with an underlying object that can either appear in object position or be raised to subject - “There are three men at the door” versus “Three men are at the door”. (Note that in this analysis, more familiar unaccusative verbs almost always raise the object to subject position. Compare “Some young women arrived” with “There arrived some young women”. “There fell a few drops of rain” versus “A few drops of rain fell”. The construction with the epithet “there” is rare except with a few verbs.) I’m not sure if this is the only or even most common analysis of this type of sentence.

That might be the traditional grammar (i.e., voodoo grammar) approach. It’s not an approach I’ve ever seen in any academic work.

I’m sorry, but that distinction is definitely not active versus passive voice. Passive voice requires a form of be plus a past participle.

Why would I want to do that?


Just to be sure I’m clear on the analysis you’re quoting, it’s an implication of that analysis that, in English, the conjugation of a verb for number is not always determined by the term appearing in the subject position of the sentence in which the verb appears, but rather, is sometimes determined by the term appearing in the object position.

Am I correct in thinking this is an implication of that analysis?


Sexual fetish for paper cuts?

It does seem like that would be the implication of it, doesn’t it? Yeah, I think you’re right. I think the approach taken in the book I mentioned would have probably said that there has no number at all, and thus the verb - which has to “check” its number feature - would look to something else nearby in the sentence. But under this analysis, the distinction between “subject” and “object” isn’t that important anyway, as at an underlying level the noun is an object in this case, and it moves to the subject position only because there has to be something there.

Meh. I’m not sure. I tend to find the Chomskyan syntax tradition rather puzzling.

Note that in many dialects, though, the verb is invariably in the singular. In casual speech, I say things like “There’s three men at the door” all the time.

You’ve been hacking into my computer!


Treating “There” as a subject seems bizarre to me. Consider there examples:

Here are three people.
There are three people.
In the house are three people.
In the house down the street are three people.
In the house down the street, across the river and past the school are three people.

In every case, “three people” is the subject of the verb “are”, and the word or phrase before “are” functions as a adverb. It’s just a heritage of the Germanic origins of English that the verb and subject have the usual order reversed.