Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Subject-Object Agreement? Don't Hold Your Breaths.

Here's a headline from today's New York Times:

At Particle Lab, a Tantalizing Glimpse Has Physicists Holding Their Breaths

Breaths? Really?

I've written before about subject-object agreement, like "Users who experience dizziness should call their doctor."

The bottom line is there's no right answer in most of these situations. But I bet that about 99 out of 100 editors would have made "breath" singular -- a collective concept -- in that NYT headline. " Breath" isn't usually treated as a count noun. It's more of a mass noun. And if a nation can breathe a collective sigh of relief, can't breath be as collective as sigh?

Odd choice. Not wrong, per se. Just odd.

Bookmark and Share


Stan said...

Part of the oddness might be because the expression is normally figurative. Pluralising breath strengthens the suggestion that the physicists are physically holding their breath, but it's reasonable to assume that they're not — though they might be feeling excitement and anticipation.

June Casagrande said...

Good point. And, now that you mention it, it's amazing how often we talk about breath holding without really talking about breath holding.


Bookmark and Share