a bishop and knight

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a bishop and knight

Post by azz » Tue Nov 20, 2018 4:19 am


a. Four grains of this substance are enough. Five grains is too much.
b. Four grains of this substance is enough. Five grains is too much.


c. A bishop and a knight are stronger than a rook.
d. A bishop and a knight is stronger than a rook.

e. A bishop and knight are stronger than a rook.
f. A bishop and knight is stronger than a rook.

Which of the above sentences are grammatical?

It seems to me that (b) is correct and (a) is not. We are talking about a quantity here.
It seems to me that (c) is correct and (d) is not, but the problem is that (c) is ambiguous. The intended meaning is that 'having a bishop and a knight is better than having a rook' but one might interpret (c) to mean that a bishop and a rook are each stronger than a rook.

I think both (e) and (f) are correct and have the desired meaning.

Many thanks.
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Re: a bishop and knight

Post by Phil White » Tue Nov 20, 2018 6:28 pm

There are a lot of problems here, and you will hear different answers from different people. I also suspect that usage is different between the UK and the US.

Sentences a and b:
  • Sentence a is highly unlikely. I suspect that native speakers would intuitively use either a plural or a singular verb in both halves of the sentence.
  • I reckon that most people would only accept a plural verb in both halves as being strictly grammatical (an option you did not provide)
  • That said, the use of the singular is an example of synesis or constructio ad sensum. You will find a lot of discussions of this on this site and elsewhere. In this case, we are making the verb agree not with the actual word "grains" but instead with an implicit singular quantity. Constructions like this are common; they are used by educated people. They are therefore grammatical even if they do not conform to strict rules of logic that some people wish to apply to grammar.
Sentences c and d:
  • The term synesis can, I think, also be stretched to cover this example, in which case, a singular verb is used if we are thinking of the bishop and knight as a configuration that is used together in chess.
  • Your suggested interpretation of both the bishop and the knight being stronger than a rook (which is generally an inaccurate statement in chess) is possible, but I think that most native speakers would resolve the ambiguity if this were meant (are both stronger ...)
Sentences e and f:
  • The same comment about synesis applies as above
  • The ambiguity is (in my mind) completely resolved here. We are thinking of the bishop and the knight as a single unit no matter whether we use a singular or plural verb.
But, for sentences c - f, my normal comment about pragmatics applies. In the context of a conversation about chess, the only plausible interpretation of any of the sentences is that the bishop and knight together are stronger than a rook. This is therefore what the statement "means", irrespective of anything else that the syntax may suggest.
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Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Re: a bishop and knight

Post by azz » Tue Nov 20, 2018 8:51 pm

This is an absolutely amazing reply! Thank you so much!
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Re: a bishop and knight

Post by gdwdwrkr » Tue Nov 20, 2018 9:55 pm

I agree, azz, Phil's response is amazing.
I tend to singularize, as in b: Twenty dollars is enough.
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