Re: Concord of Gender and Number

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed Aug 19 1998 - 16:58:28 EDT

At 11:48 AM -0700 8/19/98, clayton stirling bartholomew wrote:
>In the last few days we have had at least two threads that raised issues about
>Gender concord with neuter substantives (or adjectives). There are several
>ways in which neuter substantives are observed to break the "rules" of concord
>for both gender and number. Can anyone on the list put together a nice tidy
>list of these?
>I am speculating that there is something inherent in the semantics of the
>neuter gender that gives it more flexibility relative to concord. The neuter
>when it represents something abstract seems to disregard the "rules" of
>concord. By "abstract" I mean things like collections (collective plurals)
>which are treated as singulars, etc. This is just a wild guess at why the
>neuter seems to transgress what are otherwise fairly consistent patterns of

The fundamental rules are not complex. Normally an adjectival modifier or
pronoun is going to agree with its noun or antecedent in number, gender,
and case, although a pronoun will take its case primarily from its function
within its own clause. Normally a singular subject will take a singular
verb and a plural subject will take a plural verb (in older Greek a dual
subject may take a dual verb, of course).

The (apparent?) exceptions:

(1) a noun phrase consisting of two or more nouns of different gender will
normally take a plural adjectival modifier of masculine gender; i.e. the
masculine gender is "common" gender. I ought perhaps to add here, for
anyone inclined to make an issue of the preference for masculine gender in
this instance, (a) that the -OS declension is not a declension that is
fundamentally "masculine" in nature, even if the majority of the nouns in
it are masculine; rather -OS was originally one of many vocalic noun
categories, and in all such categories there are both masculine and
feminine nouns, and (b) compound adjectives (e.g. AQANATOS, ATUCHS) have no
distinctly feminine form but a common form for masculine and feminine--and
it should not be supposed that in this instance a masculine form is being
used to modify a feminine noun. In other words, grammatical gender is
fundamentally a grammatical phenomenon and only incidentally does it become
associated with the gender of a person or animal.

(2) a neuter plural subject regularly takes a singular verb. This is a
hard-and-fast rule in classical Attic; there are lapses from it
occasionally in the NT and Koiné, but instances of that should be
understood as lapses from the norm rather than as a norm violated by the
majority of instances. Why this particular rule of concord for neuter
plurals? While I have not seen it constated formally as a principle of
Indo-European linguistics, I believe that what is involved is a perception
of a neuter plural as a abstract category or as a unity: in both Greek and
Latin, at any rate, there's a tendency to form first-declension (feminine!)
nouns from neuter plural substantive adjectives or participles, e.g. Grk
sure, Latin does not use a singular verb with neuter plural subject, but it
does show that relationship between abstract feminine singulars and neuter
plural adjectives and participles.

(3) perhaps worth adding to the above two items is the matter of the
identity of nominative and accusative forms of the neuter--both in the
singular and in the plural. What is normally said about this is simply that
these case forms are identical, but what is actually in play, I rather
think, is that the accusative form of a word for a 'manipulable' thing is
used as a subject.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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