The Grammarphobia Blog

Do prayers have to be grammatical?

Q: I’m a pastor in the United Methodist Church. During worship I suddenly realized how odd part of the communion liturgy sounds: “all honor and glory IS yours, almighty God, now and for ever.” Then I thought about it a little more. Every week we say in the Lord’s Prayer “for thine IS the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” Hmmm. Is something amiss, or is an obscure rule at work?

A: No, there’s nothing amiss, and there’s no obscure rule involved. But subject-verb agreement can be tricky at times. It isn’t simple arithmetic. One and one in grammar doesn’t always equal two. Take that last sentence, for example.

What’s at work here is notional agreement, a subject that we’ve discussed several times on our blog, most recently in a posting last July.

Notional agreement, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, is subject-verb agreement that’s based on meaning rather than on formal textbook grammar.

By meaning here, Merriam-Webster’s is referring to the meaning that an expression has to the writer or speaker.

So if pastors or worshipers consider “honor and glory” a single package, according to the usage guide, it’s proper to use a singular verb. (The early Latin version of the prayer uses the singular est, though the two texts differ quite a bit.)

The M-W editors give this example of notional agreement from Ecclesiastes: “time and chance happeneth to them all.” And here’s a more down-to-earth example of ours: “Macaroni and cheese is my favorite dish.”

As for the Lord’s Prayer, this is a simple case of textbook subject-verb agreement. The subject “thine” is a singular pronoun that takes a singular verb, no matter how many nouns follow the verb.

If you’re still confused, here’s a more worldly example: “She’s a wit and a beauty and an heiress. What a catch!”

Getting back to the issue of notional agreement, Merriam-Webster’s says that before the 18th century “no one seems to have worried whether two or more singular nouns joined by a copulative conjunction (and) took a plural or singular verb.”

“Writers of the 16th and 17th centuries used whatever verb sounded best and did not trouble themselves about grammatical agreement,” M-W adds.

Here are a couple of Shakespearean examples: “All disquiet, horror, and perturbation follows her,” from Much Ado About Nothing, and “art and practice hath enriched,” from Measure for Measure. (“Hath” is an archaic third-person singular of “have.”)

In the 18th century, the usage guide says, grammarians “undertook to prune the exuberant growth of English” and began insisting on formal subject-verb agreement.

“Modern grammarians are not so insistent,” M-W says, noting that George O. Curme and Randolph Quirk have recognized that when compound nouns form a “collective idea” the “singular verb is appropriate—notional agreement prevails.”

Although compound subjects usually take plural verbs today, the usage guide says, “The singular verb is appropriate when the nouns form a unitary notion or when they refer to a single person (as in ‘My friend and colleague says’).”

Check out our books about the English language