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

Many thanks.

Original Post

Hi, Azz,

It seems to me that (b) is correct and (a) is not.

I don't think (a) is incorrect (by the way, I think in (a) you meant to write Five grains will be too many), but (b) is more common. One does not usually refer to the individual grains, but to the quantity formed by a certain number of grains.

Of all the sentences from (c) to (f), I think only (c) is correct. Strength cannot be attributed to more than one piece as a whole or at a time, but to pieces on an individual basis. (c) would thus mean that both the bishop and the knight are (each of them) stronger than the rook.

If

the intended meaning is that 'having a bishop and a knight is better than having a rook'

and we want to use "strong," we could say:

  • A player having/with a bishop and a knight is in a stronger position than a player having/with a rook.

Greetings to you both, Gustavo and Azz.

I think that Azz's questions are a little bit more complicated than they seem.

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

The issue here is the dual meaning of "grain".  When we speak of rice, sand, or granulated salt (or, in fact, granulated anything), "grains" are severally countable units.  When used in this sense, I would go with:

a1: Four grains of salt are enough here.  Five grains will be too many.

But "grain" is also a unit of weight (about 64.8 milligrams, or 0.002285 ounces), which has limited usage in modern times.  But the qualifier "of this substance" suggests that this is the intended usage, and that, as with any quantity of weight, we are dealing with a mass that requires a singular verb:

b1: Four grains of arsenic is enough.  Five grains will be too much.

I find Azz's other question to have more to do with the technicalities of the game of chess than with grammar per se.

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.

When judging strength, a knight and a bishop are each worth three points, and a rook is worth five.  Hence, neither a bishop nor a knight is as strong as a rook, but the combination of a bishop and knight is stronger than a rook.

Regards,

DocV

Thank you, DocV, for your valuable input here. Your phrase "the combination of a bishop and a knight" is what was in fact required for the singular verb to work.

The issue here is the dual meaning of "grain".

I understand your point, but I see it differently. Let me explain. With units of measurement like inches, feet, meters, kilometers, pounds, kilograms, tons, etc., my feeling is that any noun phrases where such units are followed by "of" + a singular noun will tend to be followed by a singular verb at all times, for example:

g. Ten milligrams of that medicine is enough.

I think the possibility to use either singular or plural will more likely arise when the partitive meaning is conveyed by a noun that is concrete, not just a unit, for example:

h. Ten bars of chocolate is too much. (Here the noun head is "chocolate," and "ten bars of" is merely a quantifier.)
i. Ten bars of chocolate are too many. (Here the noun head is "bars," accompanied by the premodifier "ten" and the postmodifier "of chocolate." There is some emphasis on the individual bars, which is absent in (h).)

Would you agree with me?

And thank you, Gustavo, for this feedback.

I find your statement

With units of measurement ... any noun phrases where such units are followed by "of" + a singular noun will tend to be followed by a singular verb at all times

and the accompanying example (g) to be in complete agreement with my comment

with any quantity of weight, we are dealing with a mass that requires a singular verb

and example (b1).  If anything, your explanation is more precise than mine.

You make an excellent point with your follow-up statement:

I think the possibility to use either singular or plural will more likely arise when the partitive meaning is conveyed by a noun that is concrete, not just a unit

and the ensuing examples.  I see that I was oversimplifying things, and that it is valid to see the quantity as a mass (thus requiring a singular verb) even if the quantity is expressed in terms of severally countable entities rather than units of measurement.

So, when "grain" is specifically being used as a unit of weight, we must use the singular verb (as per (g)).  But if the context makes it clear that it is being used in the particulate sense, or even allows for that possibility, either the singular or plural verb is possible, depending on whether we want to focus on the substance (as per (h)) or the unit (per (i)).

I'll even take that a step further and suggest that, in either instance, it is possible to elide the "of ... " phrase, even if the object of "of" is ostensibly the actual subject of the sentence.  Eg:

h1: Ten (bars/grains/bottles) is too much.
i1: Ten (bars/grains/bottles) are too many.

I think that you and I will agree that, nearly always, "much" must agree with the singular verb, and "many" with the plural.  The only exceptions I can think of are certain instances when the number is "one".  For example, an alcoholic might say:

j: For me, one drink is too many, and a thousand are not enough.

Regards,

DocV

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