The other day, I was talking to someone about music and he ventured the opinion that "Mumford and Sons are a pile of shite". Leaving to one side the question of whether or not I was inclined to agree with this assessment of the musical abilities of that particular combo, I paused before making a reply. Surely, I thought, both 'Mumford and Sons' and 'pile of shite' are singular terms? Accordingly, I believe my friend should have said: 'Mumford and Sons is a pile of shite', or perhaps: 'Mumford and Sons are piles of shite'. Or, to be more accurate: 'The music made by Mumford and Sons bears some resemblance to a pile (or piles) of shite’.
But eagle-eyed readers will already have spotted the glaring weakness in my reasoning. Yes, I had assumed, a priori, that he was talking about the musical abilities of the musicians collectively known as Mumford and Sons. But what if he was referring to the physical appearance of those musicians? What if he actually thought that the members of that group in some way resembled an aggregation of feculent debris? Harsh as such an assessment might have been, it would at least have been supported by a statement that was robust in its grammar and hermeneutics. After a few awkward moments, I decided to go with my gut feeling and settled on my initial interpretation, namely that my friend was talking about the musical abilities of the aforementioned combo (this in spite of having reservations about the incongruity of his comparison between the noise made by musicians and an essentially silent pile of waste). Even so, I could not help but suspect that it would have made things far simpler had he compared the noise made by the musicians known collectively as Mumford and Sons to another noise (perhaps, for example, a drunken folk singer with toothache trapped inside a malfunctioning industrial dryer).
For the sake of brevity, I granted his erroneous comparison while politely suggesting that he might have avoided confusion by framing his opening remark thus: "Notwithstanding the apparent incongruity of the attempted equivalence, the noise made by the musicians known collectively as Mumford and Sons bears some resemblance to a significant (and perhaps stacked) accumulation of human or animal waste material".
Grammar, I mused, can be such a minefield, or rather, series of minefields.
Incidentally, on the question of what constitutes a 'pile' of 'shite', I have long advocated that an accumulation of excrement dropped in one sitting by a large animal (an elephant, for example) should have a different status and nomenclature to a random scattering of fecal matter dropped by a number of smaller animals and then gathered into a 'pile' by a zoo-keeper or park attendant. At the risk of provoking the kind of heated exchange generated by my recent post on Thatcher-hatred, I would suggest that while these two 'piles' -to the untrained eye, at least- might appear to be similar, they are, in fact, entirely unrelated entities.
For anyone interested in exploring this topic in more detail, I've posted an article over at: