Q: I am an English language teacher in rural New Brunswick, Canada. I listen to you on WNYC every month and stream your segment several times. My question concerns this quote from Ben Franklin: “Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Why is the verb singular?
A: Before I get to your question, let me clear up a common misconception. Benjamin Franklin was not the author of that popular proverb.
The first person to use it in print was John Clarke in Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina, a 1639 book of English and Latin proverbs.
Franklin included the proverb in Poor Richard’s Almanack, which he published between 1732 and 1758. As Franklin scholars know, he relied primarily on proverb collections for the proverbs in his Almanack.
This particular proverb was printed as advice for the month of October in his Poor Richard’s Almanack for the Year 1735. Here is how it appeared: “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.”
Here is how it appeared in Clarke’s 1639 collection, which I was able to read on the database Early English Books Online: “Earely to bed and earely to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Collections of proverbs are just that – not original works but compendiums of old sayings. So the proverb that appeared in Clarke’s book naturally preceded him as well. As Fred Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, notes: “The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs gives similar expressions back to 1496.”
Franklin was known to tinker with proverbs whose phrasing he thought he could improve, but note that he used the same words (though not the same punctuation and spelling) that Clarke did.
They both used the singular verb “makes,” even though the sentence has a compound subject that would appear to be plural. The subject is two noun phrases (“early to bed” … “early to rise”) combined by “and.”
Normally, a subject consisting of two nouns or noun phrases linked by “and” requires a plural verb. The exception occurs when the two are considered a single entity, as in “Two and two makes four,” or “The Stars and Stripes was proudly displayed,” or “Meatloaf and mashed potatoes is my favorite meal.”
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language describes this kind of construction as an “override” of the normal rules of subject-verb agreement.
“Such examples can be regarded as involving a singular override,” it says, explaining that “the subject is conceptualised as a single unit and this determines the singular verb.”
The Cambridge Grammar gives an example that could go either way: “Your laziness and your ineptitude amaze/amazes me.”
As the authors explain, “both singular and plural verbs are possible, the singular conveying that the laziness and ineptitude form a single cause of amazement, the plural conveying that each of them is a cause of amazement.”
Getting back to our proverb, it seems to me that the singular verb (“makes”) tells us that both retiring and rising early are required.
It’s the combination, rather than two separate practices, that forms the subject of the sentence (and makes us healthy, wealthy, and wise).