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TomLaney1 November 18th, 2017 8:01am

VERBIVORES AND LINGUAPHILES: Here’s another very sneaky question for your weekend. Which is really correct? “Over 16 million dollars (were, was) stolen last year by identity thieves.” I’ll post the correct answer later on Saturday evening.

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TomLaney1 Jesus is Lord
11/18/17 5:11 pm

My quick tally has nine votes for “were” and eleven votes for “was.” Here’s my answer and explanation:
• The sample sentence was “Over 16 million dollars (was, were) stolen last year by identity thieves.” The sentence is quoted from a LifeLock TV commercial, and the announcer said “were,” which irritates me badly enough that I always correct him when the ad comes on. So now you know where I stand, but not why. Let’s look into it a bit.
• We have a quantity of money, described as “over 16 million dollars.” Now, let’s analyze this. Did the thieves steal over 16 million one-dollar bills? That would probably take an entire 18-wheeler! Besides, as identity thieves, they were probably operating on the Internet and stealing electronic funds. So it’s accurate to think of this as a SUM TOTAL of the funds stolen over the span of one year by all the different identity thieves in operation. From this we can now easily see that a singular verb, “was,“ is necessary. (More)

TomLaney1 Jesus is Lord
11/18/17 5:20 pm

• Why was there such confusion about a relatively simple question? Because we have had a tendency in this country to teach grammar as a series of inflexible rules without consideration for possible exceptions or situations in which those rules may not apply. In this case, we have all been taught that if items are “countable,“ we should use a plural verb. And 16 million dollars sounds like 16 million countable units. It would be nice if the original sentence had been phrased in such a way as to include the words “the sum of,” but the writers of the commercial did not give us that assistance. So we must do the very slight mental gymnastics to realize that we are talking about a single sum.


I’ll answer any additional questions if you post them below this comment.

Praetorianus Fair enough.
11/18/17 5:43 pm

I have a tangential but related question: the United States is commonly used with the singular ("is suggesting etc"), is it wrong to use the plural?
And what about "the media"?
The print media was/were outraged?

RussianThunder Russia and USA
11/18/17 7:23 pm

I hate all you guys lol lol

Praetorianus Fair enough.
11/18/17 7:43 pm

That's a definitive plural 😄

TomLaney1 Jesus is Lord
11/18/17 11:06 pm

It’s technically incorrect to use “the United States” with a singular verb, but ever since the early 20th century when Wilson began forcing progressivism on the federal government, “the US” has begun to refer to an entire country. I prefer to stick with the correct and traditional form.
As to “the media,“ I don’t believe that all media organizations movie in lockstep with each other, although most Jew. It is more correct to use “the media“ with a plural verb, but it is acceptable to use a singular verb.

ParaguasPato Columbus GA
11/19/17 12:54 am

So you base the verb on the content of the subject, not on whether the subject is plural. So how should we say this: “The family (was/were) scattered around the field”?

DoctorWasdarb Marxist Leninist Maoist
11/19/17 1:17 am

Tom, I learned that it was after the civil war when we began referring to the United States as a singular unit.

In French we use a plural conjugation when The United States is the subject. I find that interesting.

TomLaney1 Jesus is Lord
11/19/17 9:53 am

Pato, “family” is an interesting case, because it’s a single unit made up of a number of distinct single units, who act corporately AND individually. In your sentence, I would say “the family WAS scattered around the field,” because the fact of this corporate unit being spatially broken up is the apparent point of the statement, not the (seemingly coincidental?) fact that these individuals are part of a family unit. No, it’s not stated as though it were an unimportant coincidence; it’s the explicit subject of the sentence. Definitely “was.”

TomLaney1 Jesus is Lord
11/19/17 9:55 am

Doc, I think you’re right that it had Reconstruction roots.

RussianThunder Russia and USA
11/19/17 10:13 am

It was after the reconstruction. We use the plural in Russian too.

Part of why Lee fought for the confederacy is he considered himself a Virginian, not as a member of the larger United States. Indivisible states were stressed. State identity was important. I am told that before the civil war, it was “The United STATES of America”. The stress being on the word states. After it, under Garfield I believe, the push was for “the UNITED states of America”. That is how many people in my area say it. The word United is stressed. In Russian, no word is stressed. I’m not sure about the south now but the push was, at one time, to stress the word United and by changing how the name of the country was said, people’s mindset shifted to one country, not loyalty to a state.

DoctorWasdarb Marxist Leninist Maoist
11/19/17 11:32 am

If you read speeches from before the war, they actually say "these United States" instead of "the United States" which puts an emphasis on the plurality of states, whereas the simple replacement of "these" by "the" makes the name act more corporately, to borrow a term Tom used above.

BamaGirl ROLL TIDE from Arizona
11/22/17 3:39 pm

Tom, I just wanted to check...I thought the change to singular happened after the Civil War.

11/18/17 4:37 pm

Tom, although I am not a verbivore, verbs generally give me indigestion, I’m playing:
“Over 16 million dollars WERE .....”
(I forgot the rest of the sentence...)

ParaguasPato Columbus GA
11/18/17 12:45 pm

Over 16 million dollars WERE stolen by identity thieves.

“Were/was” is the verb in this sentence, so who is being stolen? Dollars are being stolen, so the verb needs to be plural to reflect that. If it was “over one dollar” then it would be “was stolen”.
“By identity thieves” is just a prepositional phrase, it has no effect on the verb.

chickencookie Jihad Joe
11/18/17 9:22 am

Was sounds better but I don’t have the grammar background as to why so I’m probably wrong.

TrueAmerican7 I Am Galt.
11/18/17 9:11 am

Were. Dollars is plural.

orgblu10 Shamerica
11/18/17 8:19 am

I'm guessing was, but this is one I've always struggled with.

Malekithe My pronouns are GFY
11/18/17 8:10 am

How much money was stolen?
Over sixteen million dollars was stolen

Liberty 4,032,064
11/18/17 5:53 am

It depends. If the money was a single sum, then “was” is correct.
If you’re referring to each dollar as an individual unit, then “were” is correct.

Sort of like “deer” and “deers,” “fish” and “fishes,” or “people” and “persons.”

ptellini Homosuperior
11/18/17 5:33 am

I am going to say “were”, because you identifiedthe object as plural.

11/18/17 2:52 am

I chose ‘was’ but can’t explain why. Single amount stolen???

DoctorWasdarb Marxist Leninist Maoist
11/18/17 2:06 am

My first thought is that the subject of the sentences is dollars, so "were." In French we would say sixteen millions of dollars. So if million were the grammatical subject and dollars takes a more genitive form, the proper conjugation would be "was." However I don't believe this second possibility to be the grammatical case in English, so I'm sticking with "were."

That being said, the user below made an interesting point about "over." What is it's grammatical role? It's not the subject. I'd say that the subject "dollars" is being qualified not by a numerical adjective, but more precisely by a prepositional phrase functioning, as prepositional phrases do, as an adjective. (I know prepositional phrases can also function as adverbs, but that isn't the case here.)

b4mytime Orange County, CA
11/18/17 1:32 am

The best answer is “was.” The term “over a million dollars” refers to a sum of money that is worth more than a million dollars. Since the thieves did not necessarily steal one million physical dollar bills, it does not make sense to treat the stolen money in the plural sense. For instance, the thieves may have electronically transferred the money.

TomLaney1 Jesus is Lord
11/18/17 1:06 am

Thank you all for participating! This one is tougher than it seems, and will require some good thought and analysis. Have fun! I’ll be back later on Saturday with an explanation of the correct answer.


DoctorWasdarb Marxist Leninist Maoist
11/18/17 2:07 am

I love these polls. Keep 'em coming!

Praetorianus Fair enough.
11/18/17 1:04 am

I'd use the plural (were), since dollars are countable objects.
Had you said "money", it's the singular (was).

TomLaney1 Jesus is Lord
11/18/17 1:08 am

That’s the traditional answer, but is it the best one? Keep thinking...

Praetorianus Fair enough.
11/18/17 1:21 am

You can argue that here it's about a lump sum and "dollars" not meant to be really countable items but a placeholder for money just to indicate the currency.
I'd settle for: both is correct.

jlong105 Indiana
11/18/17 9:13 am

Over $16 million was stolen
Over $16 million dollars were stolen

jlong105 Indiana
11/18/17 9:14 am

Over 16 million was stolen
Over 16 million dollars were stolen