What is Notional Agreement in Grammar?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

High Angle View Of Traffic Jam On Street
Many cars on the roads means many traffic accidents.

 Thanatham Piriyakarnjanakul / EyeEm / Getty Images

In English grammar, notional agreement refers to agreement (or concord) of verbs with their subjects and of pronouns with their antecedent nouns on the basis of meaning rather than grammatical form. Also known as synesis. (Other terms for notional agreement include notional concord, semantic agreement, agreement ad sensum, logical agreement, and constructio ad sensum.)

Some common cases of notional agreement involve (1) collective nouns (for example, "family"); (2) plural expressions of quantity ("five years"); (3) plural proper nouns ("United States"); and (4) some compound units with and ("bed and breakfast").

For a discussion of agreement with collective nouns (in American English and in British English), see American English.

Examples and Observations

  • "I know that our Government are letting our troops down, big time."
    (Jacqui Janes to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, quoted by Philip Webster, "Emotional Gordon Brown on Defensive." The Times [UK], Nov. 10, 2009)
  • "Correctly, we suspect that the system is rigged, our government has become coin-operated and that we've been sidelined."
    (Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman, Nation on the Take. Bloomsbury Press [US], 2016)
  • "None of them were in court to hear the judges uphold their appeal."
    (Steven Erlanger, "Terror Convictions Overturned in France." The New York Times, Feb. 24, 2009)
  • "Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones gave evidence in court while the other two surviving members, Gilliam and John Cleese, gave written evidence. None of them was in court to hear the ruling."
    (Haroon Siddique, "Monty Python Film Producer Wins Royalties Case Against Comedy Team." The Guardian [UK], July 5, 2013)
  • "Over on England's south coast, the surfers of Bournemouth are just as keen as those in Cornwall, but suffer one big disadvantage: the coast gets very poor-quality waves. But Bournemouth borough council were not prepared to let this prevent them from encouraging surfers, and their wallets, to visit."
    (Alf Alderson, "Could the Perfect Wave for Surfing Be Artificial--and in Bournemouth?" The Guardian [UK], Nov. 9, 2009)
  • "But everybody has their failing, you know; and everybody has a right to do what they like with their own money."
    (Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, 1817)

Notional Agreement With Certain Plural Nouns and Collective Nouns

"Formally plural nouns such as news, means, and politics have long taken singular verbs; so when a plural noun considered a single entity takes a singular verb, notional agreement is at work and no one objects [the United States is sending its ambassador]. When a singular noun is used as a collective noun and takes a plural verb or a plural pronoun, we also have notional agreement [the committee are meeting on Tuesday] [the group wants to publicize their views]. Indefinite pronouns are heavily influenced by notional agreement and tend to take singular verbs but plural pronouns [everyone is required to show their identification]." (Merriam-Webster's Manual for Writers and Editors, rev. ed. Merriam-Webster, 1998)

Notional Agreement With "Fact" Expressions

"Many cars on the roads means many traffic accidents." Behind the plural expression there appears to lie a singular concept which explains the selection of the -s form of the verb. Reference is made to a fact of circumstance, and the meaning of the plural subject expression can therefore be captured by the paraphrase 'The fact that there is/are X.' "Plural 'fact' expressions are particularly common in sentences where the predicator is realized by mean (or related verbs like entail, imply, involve), but we find it in sentences with other verbs as well: "High production costs prevents reasonable consumer prices."
(Carl Bache, Essentials of Mastering English: A Concise Grammar. Walter de Gruyter, 2000)

Notional Agreement With "Plus"

"When mathematical equations are pronounced as English sentences, the verb is usually in the singular: Two plus two is (or equals) four. By the same token, subjects containing two noun phrases joined by plus are usually construed as singular: The construction slowdown plus the bad weather has made for a weak market. This observation has led some to argue that in these sentences, plus functions as a preposition meaning 'in addition to.' . . . It makes more sense to view plus in these uses as a conjunction that joins two subjects into a single entity requiring a single verb by notional agreement."
(One Hundred Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses. Houghton, 2004)

Notional Agreement With Phrases Such As "One in Six" and "One in 10"

"Phrases of this sort should be treated as plural. There are good grammatical and logical reasons for this. Compare 'more than one in six Japanese is 65 or older... ' with 'more than one in six Japanese are 65 or older.. '

"Grammatically, we are talking not about the noun 'one' but the noun phrase 'one in six,' signifying a group of people. Logically, the phrase represents a proportion--just like '17%' or 'one-sixth,' both of which take plural verbs. 'Two out of every seven' and 'three out of 10' take plurals too, functioning identically."
(David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon, Guardian Style, 3rd ed. Guardian Books, 2010)

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What is Notional Agreement in Grammar?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/notional-agreement-grammar-1691439. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What is Notional Agreement in Grammar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/notional-agreement-grammar-1691439 Nordquist, Richard. "What is Notional Agreement in Grammar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/notional-agreement-grammar-1691439 (accessed June 3, 2023).