Traditional linguistics say ‘subject-verb agreement’ Columbia School linguistics say ‘verb number noun number pairs’.

Consider the following from some student writing on cyber warfare:
By the way, conventional warfare appear more dangerous because the cyber warfare is young, not yet fully exploited and easily hidden from the public.

By conventional thinking we may point out the “subject-verb agreement” error in “conventional warfare appear more dangerous”.

However Columbia School linguistics not only considers the number on the noun but also the number on the verb. Say what? The following borrows heavily from a part of a 2011 paper titled The communicative function of English verb number by Wallis Reid.

Noun number is widely known e.g. take the noun ‘CatØ’ here there is ONE entity in focus (indicated by the zero signal Ø) add a suffix -S and there is MORE THAN ONE entity in focus – ‘CatS’. Now take the verb ‘iS’ – the suffix -S indicates ONE entity in focus and no signal on the verb such as ‘areØ’ indicates MORE THAN ONE entity in focus.

The reason why the noun number usually matches the verb number is that it creates a local redundancy that helps parse the items which crossed pairing (mismatches of noun number and verb number) do not create.

That is the matched pairings apply to the same aspect of the message – the hearer is getting multiple semantic clues to approximately the same thing. Consider ‘the girls play‘ – this can be parsed and understood in isolation because the MORE THAN ONE of ‘girls‘ and the MORE THAN ONE of ‘playØ’ both indicate the number of ‘players’ and hence mutually support the parsing of girls as “subject noun” and play as “verb” (I am putting subject noun and verb in quotations to use familiar terms so as to avoid going into the terminology that Columbia Linguistics uses, see paper for more on this).

Now consider that in crossed pairings each meaning applies to a different aspect of the message and so cannot help in identifying the other. So ‘the girls plays‘ is un-interpretable in isolation because there is no contextual support to help a hearer construct a message that would justify the ONE (entity in focus) of ‘plays‘ in light of the MORE THAN ONE (entity) of ‘girls‘. Thus, all things equal, more contextual support from elsewhere is needed to identify crossed number pairings than matched pairings.

So taking into account the independent effects of noun number and verb number we can reconsider our student sentence:
By the way, conventional warfare appear more dangerous because the cyber warfare is young, not yet fully exploited and easily hidden from the public.

In “conventional warfare appear more dangerous” we can say the entity in focus with respect to appearing dangerous is a plurality which contrasts with the singular entity in focus with respect to being young (and not fully exploited and easily hidden from the public) in “the cyber warfare is young”. Now considered in this light perhaps the student’s use of such a contrast is worth praising rather than admonishing?

Some food for thought next time an ‘agreement’ issue pops up in your student writing ; )

References:

Reid, W. (2011). The communicative function of English verb number. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 29(4), 1087-1146.