The Grammarphobia Blog

A slew of meanings

Q: I believe the phrase “a number of court filings” takes a plural verb, due to synesis, but would this also be true for “a slew of court filings”? My question is prompted by an Oct. 25, 2011, article in the LA Times about the bankrupt Dodgers.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense of “slew” as meaning “a very large number of, a great amount of.” So there’s not much difference here between “slew” and “number.” Both are singular collective nouns.

This is the sentence from the LA Times that caught your attention: “As the bankruptcy case moves forward, a slew of court filings on Monday show that beating victim Bryan Stow will be central to the arguments and outcome in court.”

Is this use of “slew” correct?

While it’s certainly proper to use a singular verb (“shows”) here, many commentators on language find nothing wrong with using the plural (“show”).

A singular collective noun (like “slew”) at the head of a phrase ending in a plural (“a slew of court filings”) is often accompanied these days by a plural noun.

Linguists say that what’s at work here is “notional agreement,” sometimes called by the Greek term you use, “synesis,” meaning something like intelligence or reason.

We’ve written about notional agreement several times on our blog, including posts last September and July.

What it amounts to is agreement based on sense or meaning—that is, the meaning an expression has to the writer or speaker—rather than on form.

In one blog entry, we used these phrases as examples: “a wide range of colors” and “a bunch of the boys.” The meaning is clearly plural, although the collecting nouns (“range,” “bunch”) are singular in form. Someone using notional agreement would accompany these phrases with plural verbs.

In case you’re wondering, the use of “slew” to mean “a large number” originated in 19th-century America, according to the OED. It was an import, and came from the Irish word slua (or sluagh), meaning a crowd or multitude.

“Slew” in this sense was first recorded in Daniel Pierce Thompson’s novel The Green Mountain Boys (1839): “He has cut out a road, and drawn up a whole slew of cannon clean to the top of Mount Defiance.”

This usage is not to be confused with another kind of “slew.” This one is a variant spelling of “slough” (a boggy or marshy area) that’s used in the US and Canada.

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