What kind/sort/type of word are these? Number concord across the species noun phrase in International Academic English

I’m Adrian Stenton, and I’m a PhD candidate at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, where I’m investigating number concord across the species noun phrase, as part of the project Bridging the Unbridgeable: a project on English usage guides, which is supervised by Professor Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.

Usage guidance on what Biber et al. (1999) call “species nouns” in English (kind/sort/type + of) has a long history, and has tended to concentrate on number concord between a determiner and kind/sort/type. Thus we have:

“I ought therefore to say this Sort of Goods sells, and not these Sorts of Goods sell.” (Baker, 1770, p. 115)

“I mean the expression ‘these’ or ‘those kind of things.’ Of course we all see that this is incorrect and indefensible. We ought to say ‘this kind of things,’ ‘that kind of things.’” (Alford, 1864, pp. 69–70)

Those kind. ‘Those kind of apples are best’: read, ‘That kind of apples is best.’ It is truly remarkable that many persons who can justly lay claim to the possession of considerable culture use this barbarous combination.” (Ayres, 1911, p. 297)

kind. ‘Those are the kind of numbers that easily solve the mystery …’ (New York Daily News). Kind and kinds and their antecedents should always enjoy what grammarians call concord. Just as we say ‘this hat’ but ‘those hats’, so the writer above should have said, ‘Those are the kinds of numbers’ or ‘This is the kind of number’. Shakespeare, for what it is worth, didn’t always observe the distinction.” (Bryson, 2002, p. 111)

More recently, Keizer (2007, Chapter 7) has taken a more nuanced approach to what she calls “SKT-constructions” (p. 152):

“… these constructions can … be regarded as containing two nominals: a first nominal, N1, which is always one of three lexical items (sort, kind or type), and a second nominal which belongs to an open class. The two are separated by the element of. … Both N1 and N2 can occur in the singular and the plural; number agreement between the elements is not required.” (p. 152)

One of the purposes of my project is to investigate whether modern usage guides, many of which claim to make use of corpus data, reflect or refine older usage guidance, as exemplified above. For example, we find:

*these kind of; *these type of; *these sort of. These illogical forms were not uncommon in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but by the mid-18th they had been stigmatized. Today they brand the speaker or writer as slovenly.” (Garner, 2016, p. 906)

these/those sort of. From the 16c. onwards, sort has been used collectively, preceded (illogically) by these or those … Not unexpectedly, the plural form these/those sorts of is also used. … The type these/those sort of should now be used only in informal contexts.” (Butterfield, 2015, p. 763)

sort of … When the phrase is partly or fully pluralized, as in these sort of or these sorts of, it’s less clear whether the following noun should be singular or plural. Both constructions are equally well represented in written material from the BNC …” (Peters, 2004, pp. 507–508)

My project aims to analyse my corpus of International Academic English to see what it is that determines number marking in these species noun or SKT-constructions.

In addition to analysing what these authors have actually written, I propose to ask them what they think they write, by means of one or more surveys, and this is where, I hope, many of you will become involved.

To recap, I am proposing to carry out a multi-method approach to the analysis of number concord in the species noun phrase in a corpus of International Academic English. By using a statistical analysis of the corpus together with a survey of the authors I hope to show: (i) what the usage of the authors is; (ii) if that usage matches their attitudes to such usage; and (iii) if their usage follows established guidance.

For now, though, I am inviting you to take part in a trial survey, which I have posted on Qualtrics. You will find the survey HERE. It’s a short survey, starting with an example from Mittins et al.’s (1970) Attitudes to English Usage, just to set a bench-mark. This is followed by twelve examples, all taken from my corpus, and differing from Mittins et al. in that they are all presented in context, typically including the sentence before and the sentence following. Apart from teasing out your attitudes to number concord, the survey also gives you the opportunity to comment at length. I am hoping to use your responses to refine the survey for the authors of my corpus.


Thank you for taking part!

Alford, Henry (1864) The Queen’s English: stray notes on speaking and spelling. London: Strahan & Co. / Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, & Co.
Ayres, Alfred (1911) The verbalist: a manual devoted to brief discussions of the right and the wrong use of words and to some other matters of interest to those who would speak and write with propriety. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
Baker, Robert (MDCCLXX [1770]) Remarks on the English language, in the nature of Vaugelas’s remarks on the French; being a detection of many improper expressions used in conversation, and of many others to be found in authors. To which is prefixed a discourse addressed to His Majesty. London.
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S. and Finegan, E. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Bryson, Bill (2002) Troublesome Words. London: Penguin Books.
Butterfield, J. (ed.) (2015) Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage [4th ed.]. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Garner, B. A. (2016) Garner’s Modern English Usage [4th ed.]. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Keizer, E. (2007) The English Noun Phrase: the nature of linguistic categorization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mittins, W. H., Salu, M., Edminson, M. and Coyne, S. (1970) Attitudes to English Usage. London: Oxford University Press.
Peters, P. (2004) The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

About adrianstenton

Adrian Stenton is a PhD candidate at Leiden University Centre for Linguistics and is currently investigating number concord in the species noun phrase. Adrian is part of the project Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public, which is supervised by Prof Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.
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