An analysis of non-prototypical concord in Polish and English




I would like to thank Professor Witkoś for the kind comments he made during the preparation of this paper.



1.         Introduction



This paper deals mainly with non-prototypical Polish and English subject-verb concord because generally, as I will argue in this paper, where English concord is non-prototypical, Polish concord is prototypical and vice versa. With regard to subject-verb concord in modern Polish, an unusual ‘gender-biased’ number system seems to be the primary ‘determining element’. The number system is complex; there are for example twenty-three word ‘permutations’ for the number ‘two’ and the noun ‘a/the two’ (see appendix one). Modern English only possesses two (two/twos); Campbell (1985, 283) presents 15 variants for the number two used in Old English (see appendix 2). The number two in Old English was used in four cases and in three gender forms. 


Inconsistencies in English appear to be related to the number (i.e. whether it is plural or singular), notion (i.e. what a compound noun subject refers to) or location of a noun subject (i.e. principle of proximity). Yet in Polish whether or how the location of a noun affects verb agreement is not always clear. Polish is inconsistent and problematic in certain cases e.g. passive constructions of the type—numeral +genitive noun + neuter singular verb + participle e.g. Saloni and Świdziński (1985, 253) ‘Całe tysiące żołnierzy zostało wziętych do niewoli’ or ‘Całe tysiące żołnierzy zostały wzięte do niewoli’ ( the translation:-- thousands of soldiers were captured) What function does the third-person neuter singular verb fulfil in the following sentence? ‘ dwie trziecie pracy zostało zrobione’ ‘two thirds of the work is done’. Why ‘zostało’ and not ‘zostały’ , which would agree with the numeral ‘dwie’ ? Does Polish have a principle of proximity/ partial proximity (discussed later) or ‘something else’?  Does it use/accept the third-person singular neuter verb as a ’back-up/fail-safe option’ when agreement is debatable  (NB consider the function of the third person singular neuter verb ‘było’ in ‘było mi zimno’ ‘I was cold’)?  Another issue in Polish pertains to whether Polish uses verbal ellipsis (with all its pragmatic ‘repercussions’) or a principle of proximity to avoid cumbersome multi-numeral sentences of the type ‘jest dwoje dzieci, są dwadziecia dwa stoły i jest dwóch facetów’  (‘there are two children, twenty-two tables and two guys’).  The way Polish notional concord works at times differs from English; this will also be discussed in this paper.



This paper was written with UAM students in mind (i.e. I emphasise the things native speakers in both languages find difficult); it may also be a useful reference source for teachers of English in Poland.




2.         The Polish number system.


 Rak (1992, 53) comments that ordinal numbers (e.g. drugi—‘second’, piąty—‘fifth’), multiple numbers (e.g. dwojaki—‘double/twofold’, pięcioraki—‘quintuple/fivefold’), and multiplicative numbers   (e.g. podwójny—‘double’, poczwórny—‘quadruple’) all inflect according to number, gender and case. Most cardinal numbers (e.g. dwa—‘two’, trzy—‘three’) inflect according to case and gender. Collective-gender numbers (i.e. numbers which are mainly used to show that both male and female sexes are present e.g. jest dwoje ludzi –‘there are two [man+women] people’) are inflected only according to case. N.B. English has no equivalents of the Polish collective-gender numbers. Collective numbers are also used with: (1) nouns that represent young people or living things (e.g. tu jest dwoje dzieci—‘there are two children here’ or tu jest dwoje kaczątek—‘there are two ducklings here’; (2) with nouns that have no singular forms (e.g. tu jest dwoje nożyczek—‘there are two pairs of scissors here’). The numbers ‘thousand’, ‘million’, ‘billion’ and ‘noun’ numbers  (e.g. dwójka—‘the two’, trójka—‘the three’) decline similarly to nouns. Fractional numbers (półtora—‘half’, półtrzecia—‘two and a half’, półczwarta—‘three and a half’ [the last two numbers are archaic in Polish]) are not inflected. In Polish, ordinal numbers are inflected in the same way as adjectives. Polish has seven cases: the nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, locative, and vocative.


Polish has two plural forms: one for women, children, animals and things; and the other for men, or for women, children, animals and things in the company of a man or men e.g. one tu były—‘they were here’ i.e. for women, children, animals, things or oni tu byli—‘they were here’ i.e. for men, or for women, children, animal, things in the company of a man or men. How this distinction came about or why it has been preserved is not clear, however it has fundamental significance in Polish grammar.   



2.1       The number ‘5’ is important in Polish concord.


An unusual method of grouping numbers in Polish affects the way nouns and verbs agree i.e. different number groupings trigger off different cases and verb forms. In Polish, the number ‘five’ appears to be important: If there are 1 to 4 women or (non-virile) things (NB non-collective gender ‘things’), the verb is third-person plural e.g. są cztery kobiety—‘there are four women’; if there are 5 to 21 women or things the verb is third-person singular neuter e.g.  było pięć kobiet—‘there were five women’. The pattern, discussed below in ‘non-male subject-verb concordance’ is 1-4, 5-21, 22-24, 25-31, 32-34, 35-41. Collective-gender numbers take the verb in the third-person singular neuter e.g. było dwoje dzieci—‘there were two children’.


Evans (1992, 786) notes that a primitive method of counting was by the fingers. He further explains that in the Roman system of numeration ‘i, ii, iii, iv’ ; five was the outline of the hand simplified into a ‘v’. This I believe may, to some extent, explain why the number five was so fundamental in Polish i.e. a ‘whole-hand’ method of counting. The system of numeration, with corresponding noun case and verb agreement, is presented below.




2.2       Non-male (non-virile), subject-verb concordance.



With regard to multiple digit numerals (above 21), the last digit determines the case: between 2-4 the noun case is nominative plural, and the verb takes the non-virile plural ending; from 5 to1 the noun case is genitive plural, and the verb takes the third person singular neuter. Nouns for numbers between 5-21 take the genitive plural case, and the verb is third person singular neuter. The sequence below is discussed in Miodek (2002)


Table 1 Non-male (non-virile), subject-verb concordance.


Number series

Noun case

Example of concord/with a literal English translation


Nominative singular

Jest jedna kobieta—‘there is one woman’

2 – 4

Nominative plural

Są dwie kobiety—‘there are two women’


Genitive plural

Jest pięć kobiet—‘there is five women’---[verb is 3rd person singular]


Nominative plural

Są dwadzieścia dwie kobiety—‘there are twenty-two women’ 


Genitive plural

Jest dwadzieścia pięć kobiet—‘there is 25 women’

 Noun Number            22-24 / 25-31 / 32-34 / 35-41 / 42-44 / 45-51 etc 95-101

 Verb                               are        is         are        is         are        is              is        



2.3       Male (virile) subject-verb concordance.



The above number series do not apply, as the noun case is always genitive plural, and the verb takes a third-person singular. [The ‘male’-numbers ‘dwaj-two’, ‘trzej-three’, ‘czterej-four’ are the only three exceptions in Polish, here the verb takes the third person virile plural e.g. byli dwaj mężczyźni—‘there were two men’].


                                    Było dwóch mężczyzn—there were two men 

                                    Było pięciu mężczyzn—there were five men.



2.4       Negations and large or small amounts.



Certain words indicating amount e.g. dużo—‘a lot/many/much’, mało—‘a few/a little, wystarczy’--enough always take a third-person neuter singular e.g. dużo ludzi to lubiło—‘a lot of/many people liked that’. The verb in negations of the type nie ma—‘there isn’t/aren’t any’, nie było—‘there wasn’t/were’ in Polish always appears in the (neuter) singular.


‘ile’—‘how many/much’ takes the noun in the genitive singular or plural depending on whether the noun is uncountable or countable, and the verb in the third person singular neuter e.g. ile było arbuza?—‘how much melon was there?’ Ile arbuzów było? ‘How many melons were there?’  It is interesting to note whether/how the position of the ‘było’ affects the sentence pragmatics e.g. which question would a Polish native speaker prefer and in what situation ‘ile było arbuzów?’ or ‘ile arbuzów było?’?  



Polish grammatical concord is based on the above system of numeration. 




3.         Polish concord is sometimes problematic?



Even though subject-verb concord in Polish is ‘fairly’ consistent.(i.e. it on the whole follows the rules mentioned above), there are some problematic subject-verb situations. It is interesting to note that the ‘concord equivalents’ in English are straightforward for English native speakers. This might suggest that non-prototypical Polish concord is prototypical in English.  All of the following sentences are considered correct by the Polish grammarian presented below. Consider which ones are ‘prescriptive’ or descriptive? How would you justify your agreement (e.g. a principle of proximity, intuition, ellipsis). Do you think some are incorrect? Why?




3.1. Doroszewski (1995, 295-300)



1.      Jest godzina siódma minut dwie               It is two past seven.

2.      Przybyliśmy dziś kilometrów trzy            We’ve travelled three kilometres today



Even though the concord in examples 1 and 2 is not subject-verb, clearly the agreement is unusual. Why are the nouns ‘minuta’ and ‘kilometr’ in the genitive plural when the numerals are ‘two’ and ‘three’?



3.      Ubyły (albo ubyło) cztery centymetry wody        The water had gone down 4cm

4.       Zostały (albo zostało) nam dwie godziny            We had two minutes left



Doroszewski states (1995, 295) that if measurement units are used, the third-person singular neuter verb is acceptable; though he does not explain why Polish behaves in this way. The use of the third-person singular neuter verb would be correct in sentences of the type ‘ile wody ubyło-‘how much water had gone down’ or ile czasu zostało’-‘how much time was left. Are these sentences logical continuations of ‘ile’ (how much/many) questions or does Polish possess a ‘back-up’ option i.e. the third person singular neuter? NB Doroszewski maintains (ibid) that ‘zostało zamknięte trzy szkoły’-‘the school remained closed for three days’ is incorrect. 




5.      wysłane zostało pięć listów                        Five letters have been sent

6.      Pięć listów zostało już wysłanych              Five letter have already been sent

7.      Ten tysiąc listów został już wysłany           That batch of a thousand letters has already been sent

8.      Tych tysiąc listów zostało już wysłanych   Those thousand letters have already been sent

9.      Te tysiąc listów zostało już wysłane           That ‘thousand’ (i.e. letters) has already  been sent

10.  Dobre jest tylko dziesięć samochodów      up to ten cars is ok.

11.  Tysiąc żołnierzy walczyło na froncie         a thousand soldiers fought on the front

12.  Zginął tysiąc żołnierzy                               a thousand soldiers died

13.  Tysiące zołnierzy zgnięło (albo zginęły)    thousands of soldiers died

14.  Miliard gwiad znaduje się w tej częsci Galaktyki 

There are a billion stars in this part of the Galaxy (it is doubtful whether an English native speaker would say  ‘there is’   ).


Doroszewski (ibid) holds that sentences of the type ‘te tysiąc listów zostały już wysłane or ‘całe tysiące żołnierzy zostało wzięte do niewoli) are incorrect.

Agreement in passive sentences of the type 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,and 15 is debatable  In sentences 5 and 10 (also 42 and 43), why do the ‘wysłane’-‘sent’ and ‘dobre’-‘good’ not agree with the numerals ‘pięć’-‘five’ and ‘dziesieć’-‘ten’? Is this a case of partial proximity , pragmatics or the ‘back-up option’? Sentence 6 seems correct, but does the ‘zostało’ agree with the ‘listów’ i.e. proximity or the ‘pięć? Is it the numeral that determines the agreement or the genitive noun? Sentence 7 may be a good argument against a proximity principle i.e. the verb ‘został’ agrees with the noun furthest away, i.e. not with. ‘listów’ but with ten tysiąc. The translation ‘that batch of a thousand’ may explain why the verb is ‘został’.


Does the adjectival pronoun in sentence 8 (tych) agree with the numeral ‘1000’ or  the genitive noun ‘listów’?; Does the verb ‘zostało’ agree with the ‘listów’ (i.e. proximity) , the numeral (1000), or does it have some other function ?  Sentence 9 is particularly interesting: does the ‘te’ and ‘wysłane’ agree with a notion i.e. ‘listy’ (letters that are being sent in batches of a thousand)?  Does the ‘zostało’ agree with the ‘tysiąc’ which is ‘probably’ a numeral? How would a native speaker interpret and translate such a sentence? Is the translation accurate? Consider sentences 35 and 47, (i.e. Te miliony ludzi zostały perfidnie oszukane or Te tysiące oficerów zostały rozstrzelane); here the verb appears to agree with the ‘te’ or ‘milliony’


In sentence 11 the verb may be agreeing with the soldiers (i.e. proximity) or the language might be using ‘a’ third person singular neuter back-up option. The verb in sentence 12 certainly does not agree with the plural genitive noun ‘żołnierzy’. Here the ‘tysiąc’ appears to be a noun, i.e. ‘a/the thousand’. In example 13 there are two options NB ‘zginęli’ would be incorrect; please note that Doroszewski (1995, 299) holds that ‘dwa tysiące żołnierzy zginęło’-‘two thousand soldiers died’ is correct yet consider sentences 34 and 46 i.e. trzy tysiące kibiców czekały na or dwa tysiące uczestników oczekiwały dopingu publiczności ): the verb seems to agree with ‘a’ numeral. The verb does not agree with a numeral in front of the noun ‘tysiąc’ or the nominative plural noun ‘tysiące’; this seems inconsistent to say the least. Example 48 seems to contradict the previous example i.e. Trzy tysiące żołnierzy zginęło w czasie tego oblężenia. Sentences of the type ‘Tysiące żołnierzy zostały zabite’-‘thousands of soldiers were killed’ or  ‘Tysiące żołnierzy zostało zabitych’-‘thousands of soldiers were killed’ are also correct (according to Doroszewski ibid). A principle of ‘partial proximity’ (if it existed) could explain the concord in the first example i.e. the verb ‘zostało’ agrees with the genitive noun ‘żołnierzy’, and the past participle ‘zabite’ agrees with plural nominative noun the ‘tysiące’.  There are clearly significant inconsistencies to the way ‘tysiąc’ concords with a verb in Polish.


15.  Milion ton (węgla) został wydobyty           A million tonnes of coal was excavated.

16.  Miliony bakterii znajduje (albo znajdują) się w wodzie

There are millions of bacteria in the water.


In example sentences 14 and 15 (also see 33), the verbs appear to be agreeing with the numerals (if these are in fact numerals and not nouns). Sentence 14 is ambiguous (i.e. the verb may actually be agreeing with the genitive plural noun). Example 16 has two variants (it would be interesting to find out which variant native speakers ‘intuitively’ prefer and then ask them why they prefer the particular case).   


17.  minęło sto dni                               100 days passed

18.  minęły sto dwa dni                       102 days passed

19.  oboje rodzice wyrazili zgodę        both parents gave permission

but note ‘oboje podróżnych’         both travellers

20.  dwoje źrebiąt jest uwiązane u płotu OR  dwoje źrebiąt jest uwiązanych u płotu

two foals were tied to the gate.

21.  trzy piąte sumy przypada albo przypadają wygrywającemu-2/3 of the sum goes to the winner

22.  dwie dziesiąte metra wody ubyło (albo ubyły)-it went down 2/10 of a metre of water

23.  Trzy i pół roku (było?)      three and a half years were    

24.  Pięć i pół godziny (było?) five and a half hours were

25.  Wiele rzeczy zostało zrobione (albo zrobionych)-a lot of things were done


In sentences 17 and 18 the verb comes before the numeral (the agreement is prototypical), yet a speaker of Polish would have to know what the numeral is, before he/she chooses a verb (NB psycholinguistic research may help explain how such processes work). In sentence 19 the use of ‘oboje’ ‘both’ may be (?) inconsistent. Should it not have similarities with the way multiple gender numbers work e.g. ‘dwoje’-‘two’. In example 20 (NB also see 25), the second sentence seems more prototypical, yet strangely ‘uwiązane’ is also possible (maybe it agrees with the plural noun ‘źrebięta’-‘foal’, which of course does not appear in the sentence).  Sentences 21 and 22 are grammatically similar (also see 37); the ‘third person plural verb form appears to be agreeing with the initial numeral.  Would the use of third-person singular neuter verb in sentences 23 and 24 at the beginning of sentences i.e. było or były (?) trzy i pół roku-‘three and a half years’ suggest Polish does not use a principle of proximity and that ‘było’ serves some other grammatical function?



3.2       Saloni and Świdziński (1985, 189-283)


26.  widzę pięciu chłopców i pięć dziewczyn--I see 5 boys and girls

27.  pięcioro państwa --five groups of Mr and Mrs!

28.  Część ludzi została (albo zostało) na przystanku--some people were left at the bus stop

29.  Widzę pozostałe siedem kart--      I can see the remaining 7 cards


Example 26: would most Polish native speakers use two separate numerals, or would one of them be elided?  Saloni and Świdziński (1985, 178-180) present example 27 i.e. a multiple gender number used with a plural noun; would the verb be third-person plural or neuter singular i.e. byli or było? The ‘pozostałe’ in sentence 29 seems to agree with ‘karty’ even though this word does not appear in the sentence. 



3.3.      Markowski (2002, 1672-1687)


30.  trzy ekspedientek było krańcowo wyczerpanych (p1674)-- three shop assistants were extremely tired

31.  cztery biegaczki czekało na sygnał startera- four runners waited for the starter’s signal

32.  zamieszkał tu tysiąc emigrantów--1000 emigrants lived here.

33.  milion ton przenicy został przeznaczony-- one million tonnes of wheat were set aside

34.  Trzy tysiące kibiców czekały na-- three thousand supporters waited for

35.  Te miliony ludzi zostały perfidnie oszukane--  those millions of people were cheated terribly

36.  Zostało mi jeszcze trzy czwarte deseru--   three quarters of the dessert was left for me

37.  Trzy czwarte maturzystów wybrało (wybrały) pierwszy temat--  Three quarters of secondary-school pupils chose the first topic.

38.  Ci troje pierwsi wpadli na ten pomysł

39.  Szereg osób nie umiało się dostosować--  many people did not know how to adapt to the situation

40.  Pierwszy szereg żołnierzy zajął miejsca-- the first line of soldiers died on the spot.


Sentences 30 and 41 seem almost ‘unbelievable’, yet two authoritative sources claim that they are acceptable (i.e. not serious errors). Sentence 32 is similar to sentence 12.  What function does the ‘zostało’ serve in sentence 36 (certainly not proximity)? In example 38 the multiple gender numeral should take a noun, verb in the genitive case (i.e. troje pierwszych wpadło-‘the first three dropped out’), yet the agreement is inconsistent. Also consider 49 (i.e. nas troje postanowiło uczyć się-‘we three people decided to study’), here the agreement seems more prototypical. A change in semantics affects concord and would suggest examples 39 and 40.






3.4.      Jadacka (1995, 416-422)


41.  cztery zawodniczek było w optymistycznym nastroju (is acceptable)- 4 female competitors were feeling optimistic

42.  poprawne było tylko osiem odpowiedzi- 8 responses were correct

43.  wygodne było jedynie osiem nowych mieszkań-- only 8 new flats were comfortable

44.  moje pięć córek zostało wysłane na kolonie--  my 5 daughters were sent to a summer camp

45.  moich pięć córek zostało wysłanych na kolonie

46.  dwa tysiące uczestników oczekiwały dopingu publiczności-- two thousand participants expected to be cheered

47.  Te tysiące oficerów zostały rozstrzelane-- those thousand officers were shot

48.  Trzy tysiące żołnierzy zginęło w czsie tego oblężenia-- three thousand soldiers died during the siege

49.  Nas troje postanowiło uczyć się  --the three of us decided to study


 Do sentences 44 and 45 suggest that pronouns and participles have optional concord forms?




4.         Concord in English



Quirk et al. (1986, 360) mention that difficulties over concord tend to arise when there is some ‘conflict’ between grammatical concord (i.e. when the verb matches the subject in number) and two other ‘tendencies or principles’ i.e. the principle of notional concord and the principle of proximity. Quirk et al. (1986, 360) define notional concord as  ‘agreement of the verb according to idea of number rather than actual presence of the grammatical marker’. The principle of proximity denotes agreement of verb ‘with whatever noun or pronoun closely precedes it’; many grammarians consider proximity concord to be informal or even ungrammatical. Most of the debatable subject/verb cases below refer to notional and proximity concord.



4.1       Debatable subject-verb agreement



How should the number of the verb be decided if the subject and complement are of different numbers?


Clouds are vaporised water (not ‘is’)

The last crop was potatoes (‘were’ would be informal)

The wages of sin is death (not ‘were’)

Its strongest point is the diagrams (‘are’ would be informal)


Fowler (1981, 401) states that when the subject is a straightforward singular (not a noun of multitude), or a straightforward plural (not used in a singular sense, like ‘wages—guerdon) and does not consist of separate items (as in he and she), the verb follows the number of the subject wherever the complement may be. In Polish the verb would be third person plural, there would be no informal alternative.


If the subject is compound, as with ‘Father and children were killed’ , the compound subject must be plural, regardless whether its components are plural, of different number, or both singular; it follows that the verb is plural. Quirk et al. (1986, 361) call this non-appositional coordination, i.e. an implied reduction of two clauses. The verb in this sentence in Polish would clearly be in the third-person plural. If numbers are specified in compound noun-subject sentences, Polish concord rules would create cumbersome (or less economical) sentences of the following type e.g. ‘Two fathers and four children were killed’ –‘dwaj ojcowie zostali zabici i czworo dzieci zostało zabitych’ , i.e. the verb would have to agree with each noun subject. It is interesting to note that many Polish native speakers would prefer to use one verb i.e. ‘dwaj ojcowie  i czworo dzieci zostało zabitych’. Does this suggest that Polish uses an ‘informal’ principle of proximity NB ‘zostało’ does not agree with ‘dwaj’, does it suggest verbal ellipsis, or ‘a back-up’ option. Checking the reverse may be helpful with regard to whether Polish uses a principle of proximity i.e. czworo dzieci i dwaj ojcowie zostali  zabici (?). Which would a Polish native speaker prefer?


Their lives, their liberties, and their religion is or are in danger ?


 Some would justify ‘is’ using the principle of proximity, yet Fowler (1981, 401), with regard to the above, writes that ‘is’ is a wrong singular, and states that the use of  is ‘seems to point to a mistaken theory that, when the parts of a compound subject differ in number, the verb follows the nearest’. Fowler however adds that true grammar may sometimes be ‘overridden’ if there is a better justification other than ‘carelessness’ and ‘ignorance’. For instance , if the group forms a compound word—a single notion, as with bread and butter, a singular verb is natural (i.e. notional concord); the same is so in Polish. In the above sentence, in Polish, the verb would be in the third-person plural as all the ‘things’ in the compound subject are non-virile nouns. NB a sentence of the type ‘There are six men, twenty-two chairs and three children’—‘jest sześciu mężczyzn, są dwadzieścia dwa krzesła i jest troje dzieci’   adheres to the rules discussed earlier, the sentence in Polish however seems stilted and more ‘clumsy’ than its English counterpart. Many Polish native speakers may intuitively use (1) an informal principle of proximity  e.g. jest sześciu mężczyzn, dwadzieścia dwa krzesła i troje dzieci’; (2) verbal ellipsis; (3) a third-person singular back-up option.   


The traditional feeling that killing and violence was against the moral law.


Fowler (1981, 401) argues that killing and violence amount to a hendiadys meaning violent killing.  Hill, R. (1993, 167) defines a hendiadys (n) as the use of two nouns joined by and instead of a noun and an adjective. Fowler (1981, 245) notes that ‘nice and warm’,  ‘grace and favour’, ‘rough and ready’ may be used instead of nicely warm, gracious favour or roughly ready; a verb would be in the singular. Quirk et al. (1986, 362) define such cases as appositional coordination, because the subject elements refer to the same thing. In Polish the verb in such a sentence would probably be third-person singular, because ‘killing and violence’ would also represent one idea, though some may argue that the notion ‘killing and violence’ is plural i.e. ‘zabijanie i przemoc są’ 


‘Siamese twins’, a term used by Fowler (1981, 554) to describe words linked in pairs by and or by, convey a single meaning; this means that the verb is singular. With the following examples the combination has a different meaning from that of its components: chopping and changing, part and parcel, use and wont, might and main; others consist not only of synonyms, but of associated ideas—bill and coo, bow and scrape, flotsam and jetsam, hum and ha, ways and means; some combinations consist of opposites or alternatives—cut and thrust; some are from law—act  and deed, aid and abet, let or hindrance; some may be literary allusions—rhyme or reason, fear and trembling, sackcloth and ashes, whips and scorpions. Such phrases are non-prototypical and language-specific. Polish also has Siamese twins (though fewer than English), an example is presented below, it is interesting to note that the English translation takes the verb in the third person plural, this may suggest that translating Siamese twins is problematic: 


Gość i ryba na trzeci dzień cuchnie  - Fish and guests smell at three days old.


Alternative pairs of the type ‘Mother or children are (not is) to die?’ are awkward (i.e. the principle of proximity is used), the strategy for such constructions should be one of avoidance. Fowler (1981, 402) advises : (1) using verbs of common number (mother or children must die); (2) invoking ellipsis by changing the order (The mother is to die, or the children); (3) by giving the verb the number of the nearest alternative (Mother or children are to die/children or mother is to die) . This kind of concord is logic-specific rather than language-specific. 


Sentences of the type: Singular subject  + of + plural noun + verb tend to cause problems in English e.g. The results of the recognition of truth are…not ‘is’. In Polish ‘results’ is a non-virile plural noun: the verb would be in the third-person plural.


Fowler (1981,402) points out that sentences of type  ‘He is one of the best men that have ever lived’ (and not ‘has’) are particularly troublesome as relative pronouns can in themselves be singular or plural.  In such a sentence there are two words which could serve as antecedent to ‘that’ i.e. ‘one’ and ‘men’. Rewriting this sentence as ‘Of the best men that have ever lived, he is one’  shows just how wrong ‘has’ would be; In Polish the verb would agree with virile noun ‘men’ i.e. it would be in the third-person plural i.e ‘jacy kiedykolwiek żyli’.


Nouns of multitude e.g. army, fleet, Government, company, party, pack, crowd, club, choir, cast, number etc can be treated as singular or plural; ‘I do not know of any nouns of multitude in modern Polish’; the following grammar does not apply in Polish. Polish does possess plural nouns that look like singular nouns (e.g. generałostwo-‘general and his wife’, państwo-‘Mr and Mrs’, wujostwo-‘aunt and uncle’) or singular nouns that you would expect to be plural (e.g. magnateria-‘nobility’, pospólstwo-‘commonality’, młodzież-‘youth’ ). If the noun in English has a plural sense, the verb and any pronouns should be in the plural e.g. The company are at work now and ready to do their (and not its) bit. The choice of verb may affect the overall meaning e.g. The staff was huge (means there were a lot of staff); The staff were huge ( means they were very large people!). Davidson (1996, 72) shows that choice of relative pronoun, like singular and plural verb, depends on whether the noun is looked upon as denoting a single body (in which case which is used), or a number of individuals (in which case who is used): The committee which meets every day; The committee who meet every day. Quirk et al. (1986, 360-361) point out that in BrE collective nouns that are notionally plural obey notional concord i.e. the verb is plural. In AmE the collective noun nearly always takes a singular verb.   


Alexander (1988, 46) with regard to collective nouns that do not have plural forms (i.e. the aristocracy, the gentry, the proletariat, the public, the youth of today) notes that they can be followed by a singular or plural verb; in Polish there would be no alternative i.e. the number of the noun determines the verb case.


Her offspring is or are like her in every respect

The youth of today is or are better off.


Alexander explains that some collective nouns take a plural verb i.e. cattle, the clergy, the military, people, the police, vermin. Fowler (1981, 677) however notes that ‘vermin’ is usually treated as a plural, but sometimes as singular (this vermin i.e. these rascals) and occasionally it has both ‘a’ in the collective sense i.e. ‘a vermin that I hope to reduce the numbers of’ and as denoting an individual (‘such a vermin as you’).


The police/military have surrounded the building.


With the exception of ‘people’ and ‘’vermin’, which are plural nouns in Polish and so take the verb in the third-person plural,  all the above words are singular in Polish. Some English nouns have a plural form though take a singular verb i.e. news, darts, Athens.


The news is really bad.


Polish appears to be more consistent with regard to the following sentences i.e. the verb always agrees with the noun ‘number’ i.e. the word ‘liczba’(liczba czegoś jest/była duża):  The number of people present was large (the verb is singular because ‘number’ has a definite article); A number of people were present (the verb is plural because the noun ‘number’ has an indefinite article); a number of details have been settled (here ‘a number of details’ is a composite subject equivalent to numerous details).     


The following sentences cause problems: There were a table and some chairs-- ‘were’ is preferable to ‘was’ because the compound subject is compact. But There was a big round French table which had long wooden legs and some chairs—‘was’ is better here as the compound subject is not compact ,and a relative clause has been attached to one of its components. This kind of sentence is logic-specific and not language-specific. The Polish translation of the first sentence may sound stilted to some Polish native speakers i.e. był stół i było parę krzeseł , yet the sentence ‘był stół i parę krzesel’ to most Polish native speakers is correct;  a ‘principle of proximity’ or ellipsis may explain why. An interesting question might be how ellipsis or a principle of proximity works and in what situations.  


Sentences containing ‘he or her’, ‘himself or herself’ have three legitimate permutations, Polish only has one (się/siebie, which decline i.e. Jan wierzy w siebie-Jan believes in himself,  Jan opowiada o sobie-‘Jan talks about himself’, Jan interesuje się tylko sobą-Jan is interested only in himself’): anyone can see for himself or herself—is rather pedantic or clumsy; anyone can see for themselves—some  grammarians regard this as informal; anyone can see for himself—Fowler recommends this case if the matter of sex is not important, the male case is statutory in the interpretation of documents. This is an example of subject-object concord


 Maciver (1986, 81) is quite traditional/formal with regard to concord. English however seems, at least colloquially, to have informal variants of the sentences below; Polish has no variants.


. The informal versions are examples of the principle of proximity.


Each of the boys has a toy—[informally, ‘has’ is sometimes replaced by ‘have’]

One of the ladies is married—[informally, ‘is’ is sometimes replaced by ‘are’]

Neither of the ladies is married—[informally, ‘is’ is sometimes replaced by ‘are’]

None of the ladies is married—[informally, ‘is’ is sometimes replaced by ‘are’]


Maciver (1986,81) notes that a singular subject with attached phrases introduced by ‘with’ , ‘like’ or ‘as well as’ is followed by a singular verb. This kind of grammatical situation is logic-specific.


The boy, with several others, was late

Alice, like Rose, is tall for her age.

Tom, as well as Fred, rises early in the morning.


Sinclair et al. (1995,568) define ‘everyone/everybody’ as all the people. The Polish equivalent takes a plural verb, yet in English, the verb is singular. Polish learners are very often confused by such strange agreement, after all, ‘all the people’ implies ‘they’ and so a plural verb; the sentence—‘all of them are crazy’ does not really help when trying to explain the concord logic for ‘everyone/everybody’.


The plural nouns heaps and lots used informally for great amounts, as Fowler (1981, 403) shows, take a singular verb unless a plural noun with of is added i.e. There is heaps of ammunition; there are heaps of cups; there is lots to do; Lots of people think. Some Polish students may find such sentences confusing—Polish does not have such informal alternatives.


Alexander (1988, 46-47) claims that some nouns with a plural form take a singular or plural verb, though there seems to be some dispute between grammarians on certain aspects of his argument.  Alexander argues that the following nouns ending in –ics take a singular verb: athletics, gymnastics, linguistics, mathematics and physics e.g. Mathematics is a difficult subject. Thomson and Martinet (1991, 27) state that ‘ a number of words ending in –ics, acoustics, athletics, ethics, hysterics, mathematics, physics, politics etc, which are plural in form, normally take a plural verb: His mathematics are weak. Davidson (1996, 94-95) argues that when nouns ending in –ics denote subjects of study, academic disciplines or fields of activity, they are singular e.g. Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary.  If, however, such words denote data, ideas, actions etc, they are treated as plural nouns e.g. Their politics at that time were more left-wing than they are now. Fowler (1968, 260) comments that the plural form is used ‘for a manifestation of qualities, often recognisable by the presence of ‘his’ or ‘her’ etc’. He furthers notes that plural forms are used for denoting ‘behaviour or the like’ e.g. Hysterics leave me cold; Heroics are out of fashion.  All English ‘ics’-words are singular in Polish.


Davidson (1996, 94) states that names of diseases which end in –s (e.g. measles, mumps, rabies shingles) are treated as singular nouns, yet Alexander (1988, 47) argues that a plural verb is sometimes possible: Mumps are (or is) fairly rare in adults. In Polish if a noun is a plural noun e.g. ‘plecy’-back, ‘urodziny’-birthday, ‘ludzie’-people, it always is a plural noun. Some plural nouns in Polish are singular in English (e.g. ‘Chiny są’-China is or ‘Indie są’-India is, ‘usta’-mouth, ‘plecy’-back, ‘urodziny’-birthday) and vice versa (e.g. The police are—‘policja jest’ or the arms are-‘broń jest’, binoculars-‘lornetka’, tweezers-‘pinceta’, scales-‘waga’, clothes-‘ubranie’); some plural nouns in Polish are plural in English e.g. ‘spodnie’-trousers, ‘okulary’-glasses, ‘rajstopy’-tights,


Nouns with the same singular and plural forms are often confusing for Polish learners e.g. bison, cattle, sheep, swine, fruit, fish, aircraft, species, series, crossroads e.g. The fish is/are big. Gove, P et al. (1986, 26a) note that certain nouns denoting fishes, birds, and mammals have both a plural with a suffix and a singular zero plural that is identical with the singular. The following form a plural with a suffix (except occasionally when modified by an adjective like wild, native, sea, mountain) : bird(s), cow(s), crow(s), dog(s), monkey(s), parrot(s) etc . Sentences of the type mountain/native/sea/wild bird are beautiful are problematic. Those who hunt or fish tend to use a zero plural form:   The partridge/rabbit/stag here (I hunt) are plentiful. Another awkward situation in English is with the group of nouns of which the zero plural is commoner, but the plural with a suffix is used to signify diversity in kind or species e.g. the trouts/mackerels /fishes of the Rocky Mountains are very different—but two trout/mackerel/fish are enough. In Polish it is, as mentioned earlier, the number that determines the verb form i.e. non-virile/virile things follow the number series mentioned earlier, collective-gender numbers take the verb in the third-person neuter singular.


The singular form There’s (or there was) is often used informally in place of There are to refer to the plural e.g. There’s lots of cars on the roads; There’s a man and a dog in our garden. Such informalities do not apply to Polish.


When talking about an amount of money, time, or a distance, speed or weight, you usually use a number, a plural noun and a singular verb: sentences of this type often confuse Polish learners, though sentences of the type ‘300 funtów wystarczyło’—‘three hundred pounds is enough’ do not (i.e. the verb is in the third person singular neuter). 


Three hundred pounds is enough.

Ten years is a long time.

Three miles is too far.

90 miles an hour is too fast.

Ninety kilos is all she weighs.


Most place names, in English are singular, though some groups of islands or mountain ranges are plural nouns. Weiner and Hawkins (1985, 176) comment that the Bahamas and the Philippines are treated as singular when considered as a unit, and can be treated as plurals when referring to geographical names of the groups of islands which the two nations comprise.


The Bahamas were settled by British subjects

The Bahamas is mainly an agricultural country.


When one talks about fractions/percentages of a single thing, a singular verb form is used; Polish also uses a singular verb as all fractions/percentages take the genitive case i.e. the verb is in the third-person singular. 


Two thirds of the work was done. (Would this be ‘zostało  zrobione’ or ’zostały  zrobione’?)

90 percent of the work is done.


When the fraction or percentage refers to a number of things, the verb is plural; in Polish the verb is singular though the following appear correct: dwie trzecie są biedne, jedna trzecia jest biedna, większość ludzi jest biedna. Many Polish native speakers feel ‘dwie trzecie ludzi było biednych’ is correct. The latter example would suggest that (1) a principle of proximity operates in Polish; (2) the third person neuter singular has some other function (discussed earlier). 


Two thirds of people were poor.

 (In the above sentence, Polish native speakers have difficulty deciding whether ‘było’ ‘były’, or even ‘byli’ should be used).

90 percent of people are poor.


Sinclair, J. et al. (1990, 379) comment that singular verbs are used with uncountable nouns preceded by ‘all’ or singular count nouns preceded by ‘each’ and ‘every’. Polish takes a plural verb in both cases as it agrees with the virile or non-virile subject nouns.


All his effort and sacrifice is proof….

 Every man, woman and child who was present, was...

 Polish uses plural verbs (translations of the above)


Każdy mężczyzna, kobieta i dziecko, którzy byli obecni, są ….

‘Cały jego wysiłek i poświęcenie są dowodem…’


A number of words can be treated as exceptions to the general rule of noun-verb agreement (i.e. verbs must agree with the person and number of their subject). See below:


(1) rest

The rest of them were ill – ‘rest’ is singular in Polish


(2) average, majority, maximum, minimum, minority and total. Davidson (1996, 67-68) points out that most of these words are followed by a plural verb if they refer to a number of items or individuals. He furthers confuses the issue by saying ‘it is not incorrect to use a singular verb’. All the above words are singular in Polish.


A total of five books is/are available.


The verb agreement for additions, as Swan (1997, 388) shows, can be plural or singular; Polish is singular. Quirk et al. (1986, 362) mention that arithmetic sums ‘illustrate non-appositional coordination with the possibility of a singular verb’.


2+2=4   Two and two is/are four


Quirk et al. (1986, 364) argue that neither/nor behave in colloquial speech more like and than like or as regards concord (This can be viewed as a notional concord) Note the Polish ‘Chłopiec ani dziewczyna nie czytają książek’ (neither the boy nor the girl reads books) differs from formal English concord.


Neither he nor his wife are here (informal- notional)

 Both he and his wife are not here (similar meaning)



5.         Conclusion


In this paper I have drawn attention to concord inconsistencies in both Polish and English. On the whole non-prototypical Polish concord is prototypical English and vice versa. Whether or not Polish possesses a principle (partial) of proximity, ellipsis, a third-person neuter singular verb ‘back-up’, or an informal option is not clear. Notional concord in Polish does not always work the same way as notional English concord.


Concord in English can be extremely confusing for learners and native speakers alike. Many of the debatable situations in English refer to notional concord or proximity concord. In colloquial speech, English sometimes has an informal alternative of the formal subject-verb agreement. In certain cases there is some difference of opinion between grammarians; this is not particularly helpful for learners. Teachers should be wary when teaching English concord: students may become ‘frustrated’ if the teacher is unable to give a perspicuous explanation of a particular grammatical situation.        


It would be interesting to research how concord in Old English was used and what effect the simplified English number system has on concord in modern English. Such research may throw some light on what would happen to Polish subject-verb concord if the number system were to be simplified/revised. 





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Appendix one


Table 2. Declension patterns of the cardinal number ‘dwa’—‘two’


Based on Rak (1992, 54)



Declension Form


Male forms

Non-male and neuter forms

Feminine forms


dwaj / dwóch








dwóch/dwu in all genders


dwóm/dwom in all genders


dwoma in two genders



dwóch/dwu in all genders





Table 3. Declension pattern of collective-gender numbers


‘dwoje ludzi’—two people (a man and a women)



One plural form only




















Table 4. Declension patterns of the feminine Polish noun ‘dwójka’—‘the/a two’


Based on Wróbel et al. (1993, 17)





Non-masculine plural


























23 word variants for the number and noun ‘two’


dwa, dwie, dwaj, dwu, dwóch, dwom, dwóm, dwiema, dwoma, dwoje, dwojga, dwojgu, dwojgiem, dwójka, dwójkę, dwójki, dwójce, dwójką, dwójko, dwójek, dwójkom, dwójkami, dwójkach




Appendix two



Campbell (1985, 283) Old English Word variants



Twē, twä, tū, twēġ(e)a, twēġ(e)ra, twœm, twœġa, twēge(n), twœġen, tuū, twū, tuœm , (twain) 



Please note the ‘œ’ symbol in Old English should have a line ¯ above it.