Half of the class are women? Is women?
November 14, 2017 1:01 PM   Subscribe

Which is correct: Half of the class are women OR Half of the class is women? I think the former, but someone I'm editing for insists it's the latter.
posted by swheatie to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Half (of the class) are women.
Half are women.
posted by Orca at 1:07 PM on November 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


Are you in the same country? US English and UK English might be different here.
posted by FencingGal at 1:08 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


You are correct. If the entities involved are discrete, like the women in the class, they make up a plural group: half of the class are. If we're talking about a chunk that's divided into smaller chunks, those chunks are singular: half of the apple is.
posted by languagehat at 1:09 PM on November 14, 2017 [39 favorites]


I believe this is the conjugation of a collective noun.
posted by aniola at 1:10 PM on November 14, 2017


Half of the class is made up of women

Half of the people in the class are women.

For "half the class..." I'd go with "are women," but to solve the writer's issue, I'd just pick one of the above two.
posted by Mchelly at 1:12 PM on November 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


Yes, languagehat, that is exactly what I thought. The person was giving me a little grammar lesson as she corrected me. So insufferable. If you're going to be snarky about grammar, be sure you're right!

Thanks, folks.
posted by swheatie at 1:13 PM on November 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


> US English and UK English might be different here.

No, this is not geographical, it's a matter of someone trying to use simplistic logic where it doesn't apply. This paragraph from Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (the best usage book around) cites both US and UK sources:
A few commentators—among them Sellers 1975, Longman 1984, Chambers 1985, and Corder 1981—discuss half with respect to verb agreement. They all tell us that when half ... is followed by a singular noun it takes a singular verb; when followed by a plural noun it takes a plural verb.... Those who use the wrong verb ... have perhaps been frightened by traditional grammar or the school exercise of diagramming sentences into believing that the formal subject, half, must govern the verb, when in fact the true subject is the following noun.
> I believe this is the conjugation of a collective noun.

No, this has nothing to do with collective nouns.
posted by languagehat at 1:20 PM on November 14, 2017 [9 favorites]


They all tell us that when half ... is followed by a singular noun it takes a singular verb; when followed by a plural noun it takes a plural verb

But that rule doesn't account for this case, as "class" is, in fact, singular.

Those who use the wrong verb ... have perhaps been frightened by traditional grammar or the school exercise of diagramming sentences into believing that the formal subject, half, must govern the verb, when in fact the true subject is the following noun.

No, I think they're just following the traditional rule such that it's "One of the boys is American", not "One of the boys are American." In my experience, people are far more likely to err by letting the verb be attracted into the plural to match the noun nearest to it than the error discussed here. The formal subject does govern, it's just that we feel "half" to be--depending on what's being halved--either singular or plural.
posted by praemunire at 1:41 PM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


The easiest way to call them on their bullshit might be to point out that they wouldn't say "Women is half of the class".
posted by howfar at 1:53 PM on November 14, 2017 [7 favorites]


Taking an analogous sentence with different words, I'm pretty sure that "Part of his outfit is pants and shoes" sounds much more correct with "is" as opposed to "are" -- because the 'part' or 'half' is singular. OTOH, 'Pants and shoes are part of his outfit' sounds better with 'are' but I think there's a slight difference in meaning between the two sentences which may account for the difference; I think 'part' plays a somewhat different grammatical role in one.
posted by bsdfish at 2:33 PM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


Yep, bsdfish, I think you're taking this the same direction I've been trying to write up for a little bit here.

First, I read this differently when it's about individual characteristics of the constituent members of the plural noun vs. an all-encompassing attribute that applies to the plural noun, such as location. If we were talking about where a herd is located, I might say something like "Half of the herd is over there," just like I'd probably say "The herd is over there." And that reverses just fine: "Over there is the herd" or "Over there is half of the herd."

Then I was reminded of the eternal debate about whether a band is a plural or singular noun; I always liked to argue it was a single entity, so "The Police was on tour" is just as grammatical as "Goldfinger was on tour," whereas others might argue that that way doesn't sound right and it should be "They were on tour" or even "The Police were on tour," either because there's more than one person in the band or because the name of the band is itself a plural noun. (Layers of confusion!) Ultimately, those are all separate issues, but a class or a herd or a band can be seen as both an individual noun and a plural entity, depending on the attributes or behavior being discussed. So it's a little simplistic to say it's all-or-nothing (or many-or-nothing? heh).

I was trying to think through whether the individual characteristics use case could really be broken down even further into the way one deals with terms that are about permanent identity or origin vs. temporary attributes (a distinction that's definitely made in terms of verb choice in other languages, e.g., ser vs. estar in Spanish). I would say "The herd is sick" or "Half of the herd is sick" (temporary), but I could see saying "Half of the herd are from Mars" (permanent origin of individuals) or "Half of the herd are black" (permanent identity of individuals). I don't think this distinction holds up in English, though, because those aren't different verbs, just different conjugations.

I feel like in most of these cases, though, you can effectively replace "the herd" with "they" or "them," depending on whether the collective noun is subject or object. Yet I wouldn't say a reversal rule is clear from that in English, because "Sick is the herd" does make sense, albeit in an awkward way, whereas "Sick is half of the herd" sounds weird, and I'd probably change the adjective to a noun: "The sick are half of the herd" is what sounds better when you reverse the half version of the sentence. If "joyful" were the attribute, it would sound like this: "Joyful is the herd" or "Joyful is half of the herd," whereas I think the latter sounds more correct as "Joyful are half of the herd," along the form of "Joyful are those who obey his laws."

Because of the subject-object thing, though, among other reasons, reversibility can't necessarily be a defining characteristic of whether this construction is grammatical. "They are half of the class" works, but "Them are half of the class" does not. That's the issue of subject (they) vs. object (them). So that's when I got to the same thought bsdfish mentions: Maybe it's an issue then of a plural noun being a subset of another plural noun, especially when each plural would be treated differently. "Half of the box is fries" sounds right, whereas "Half of the box are fries" does not, because I wouldn't treat fries as individual entities in that context. And if you reverse it, I also wouldn't say "Fries is half of the box," because "Fries are a side item," even if the box or order (each in and of itself a plural noun in this case, like class) also contains chicken fingers.

tl;dr: One could make an argument for either construction being correct in the example given in this question, depending upon the respective treatment and meaning of each plural noun.
posted by limeonaire at 2:46 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


Partially because of lingering affection for my alma mater, I always defer to Mark Liberman, as in this (really old!) Language Log entry.
posted by supercres at 5:20 PM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]




Aaaand now I’m going to go back on two whole comments and agree that the above about collective nouns aren’t really relevant here. I never thought about how weird “half” is :)
posted by supercres at 5:38 PM on November 14, 2017


Here's Grammar Girl's take on "half" (Link to a Google Books search--"Grammar Girl's 101 Troublesome Words You'll Master in No Time")

She (Mignon Fogarty) writes that "half" can be either plural or singular and it has to do with notional agreement. In this case, according to her, it would be "half of the class is women"
posted by lesser weasel at 5:41 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


(Actually, just take my link at face value and not my last sentence, because I personally use "is" and "are" interchangeably in the same context and could make arguments for both)
posted by lesser weasel at 5:52 PM on November 14, 2017


I’ve now been thinking about this way too long because now I think it depends on what’s on both sides of the verb.

Half of the class {is,are} women
Half of the students {is,are} women
Half of the class {is,are} female

The first one, your original sentence, still seems like it could go either way to me. (Either way, specifically calling your conjugation wrong seems baseless.) The second and third are more clear cut (are and is respectively) but I’m not sure why.

Knew I should have taken more linguistics. If I get a chance I’ll do the Google Ngramming that will at least settle which is more common in the published record.
posted by supercres at 9:21 PM on November 14, 2017


This ngram? It appears that "Half of the class is" turns out to be more common (at least in the past century).
posted by limeonaire at 9:39 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


"Half of the class are women" sounds more natural than "is"

but

"Half of the class is going on a trip" sounds more natural than "are"
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:21 AM on November 15, 2017


Am I misremembering that british football announcers say England are ahead 3 goals to 1 whereas here in the US we say England is ahead 3 goals to 1?
posted by MidStream at 7:17 AM on November 16, 2017


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