Sometimes you get a great notion

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There is macaroni and cheese in the refrigerator? Or there are macaroni and cheese in the refrigerator?

I wish I’d thought of the question. It’s a great illustration of an interesting quirk in the language. But in fact, this example is pilfered from a rather excellent piece published online recently by the folks at Merriam-Webster. The topic: notional agreement.

If you haven’t heard of notional agreement, that may be partly my fault. I’ve talked about related subjects a lot, like how to know which verb form to use with “a flock of seagulls.” Is it “A flock of seagulls is overhead” or “a flock of seagulls are overhead”? (Short answer: Either can be correct, as we’ll see in a minute.)

I’ve even talked about notional subjects, which are the intended subjects that get displaced by “there” in sentences like “There are croutons in my salad.” The idea here is that the verb is plural to match “croutons” even though the singular “there” is technically the subject of that sentence. That’s why “croutons” is a notional subject.

But I’ve failed to put these subject-verb agreement issues in proper context under the very useful umbrella term “notional agreement.”

Notional agreement, as the folks at Merriam explain, refers to any number of situations in which a subject and verb don’t have the straightforward relationship we usually see. You know, like how the verb differs slightly in “One cat sleeps” and “Two cats sleep.”

In these, we change the verbs, a process we call conjugation, to agree with the number of the subject. A singular subject like “cat” pairs with a different verb form than a plural subject like “cats.”

That’s plain old agreement. Nothing notional about it. But sometimes things aren’t so straightforward. In those cases, we rely on meaning -- the very notion behind the words -- and we base our grammar on that. Hence the idea of notional agreement.

Back to those birds. “Flock of seagulls” is a noun phrase consisting of a head noun, “flock,” and a prepositional phrase. The prepositional phrase contains its own noun, “seagulls,” which is the object of the preposition. This whole cluster can be the subject of a sentence like “A flock of seagulls is/are overhead.” But choosing between the singular “is” and the plural “are” depends on a question: Which of those two nouns governs the verb? The singular “flock” or the plural “seagulls”?

The answer is whichever the speaker most means to emphasize. When the flock is acting as a single unit, you can use a singular verb like “is.” When it’s clearly a plural, as in “A flock of seagulls were fighting amongst themselves,” a plural verb is appropriate.

But notional agreement goes beyond these two scenarios. There are also words like “politics.” The sentences “Politics is a tough profession” and “Politics are a hot topic” show that verb agreement hinges on whether the word is meant as a singular or a plural.

Another situation where you see notional agreement at play involves words like “crew,” “pair,” “couple” and “trio.” These words are singular. But sometimes it just makes more sense to operate on the notion that they represent a plural. “The crew are all clocked in and ready to get to work.” “The pair were seen leaving in a gray car.”

Here, the singular-in-form-but-plural-in-meaning “pair” takes the plural verb “were” instead of the singular alternative, “was.”

“Notional agreement is something to which we don’t often pay notice because it’s almost instinctive, a part of our regular speaking habits,” the folks at Merriam write. “It’s not a set rule in its own right, but rather a matter of preference, and it’s more common in British English than American English.”

So you can say “A crowd of revelers were approaching” if that sounds best to you. But, the Merriam writers point out, “if you preferred to say ‘a crowd of revelers was approaching,’ you wouldn’t be wrong.”

- June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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