Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Tag Questions and Agreement With Nearest

Posted by Neal on March 24, 2005

A few months back, there was some discussion on Language Log concerning what they named “Agreement with Nearest (AWN),” exemplified in sentences like this one:

Why do some teachers, parents and religious leaders feel that celebrating their religious observances in home and church are inadequate and deem it necessary to bring those practices into the public schools?

The subject of the clause following feel that is the gerund phrase beginning with celebrating…; therefore, the main verb in the clause should be singular. However, it’s a pretty long gerund phrase, and right before the verb is the coordinate NP home and church. The writer has mistakenly made the verb plural (are) to agree with the nearest NP instead of the true subject.

But wait! Aren’t linguists supposed to accept everything as OK? Well, no. (See this post from Geoff Pullum for a concise discussion of this point.) The above example is judged to be a true error, not produced deliberately. The author of it would probably agree that what they really meant was is. However, Arnold Zwicky points out that there are other instances of AWN that probably aren’t errors, and really should be allowed by an accurate descriptive grammar.

With that background laid out, here are some instances of AWN that I’ve found turning up in my own speech:

  • You know what mosquitoes do, don’t they? (instead of don’t you?)
  • It’s a good thing we’re not going in that direction, are we? (instead of isn’t it?)

I’ve heard myself say a couple more like these, but wasn’t able to write them down before forgetting them. Every time I do one of these AWN tag questions, I mentally correct myself. For that reason, an accurate descriptive grammar of English as spoken by Neal Whitman would not have a rule of AWN for tag questions. But I’ve been producing them enough that I now have to wonder if other speakers do it, too. If they do, do their own utterances strike them as ungrammatical, mine do to me? Or is AWN for tag questions a rule in their grammar?

2 Responses to “Tag Questions and Agreement With Nearest”

  1. […] she’s been coaching him. But it’s not simply a case of agreement with nearest, as I classified it a few years ago. I didn’t say You don’t think she’s been coaching him, has she? I […]

  2. […] reminds me of sentences I’ve actually uttered myself, involving tag questions. But when I said these, I noticed, and identified them as things I didn’t mean to […]

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