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English as a Second Language/It (singular) with plural nouns

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Question
Dear Jed,

Please look into the following:

Quote from English for Starters 7:
"The circus is coming to town! The students at this school are learning circus skills. They do it once a week after school."

We have here a plural antecedent (skills) and then "it" (singular) in the following sentence (of course I think "it" refers to "skills"). Could you please explain this?

Quote from the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English:
"Though 'illness' and 'disease' are often used alike, 'illness' is really a state, or length of time, of being unwell, which may be caused by a disease. It is diseases that can be caught and passed on if they are infectious ...."

Here we have "it" (singular) used with "diseases" (plural), which is clear from the use of "they" is the following clause.
Could you also explain this?

Thanks & best regards,
Antoine Ghannoum

Answer
Dear Antoine,

"The circus is coming to town! The students at this school are learning circus skills. They do it once a week after school."

The antecedent of 'it' in your first sentence is the verb phrase 'learning circus skills'. This (learning circus skills) is what they do once a week.

"Though 'illness' and 'disease' are often used alike, 'illness' is really a state, or length of time, of being unwell, which may be caused by a disease. It is diseases that can be caught and passed on if they are infectious ...."


In your second sentence, (it is)diseases that are/can be caught and (are/can be) passed on if they (the diseases) are infectious ... .

Compare:

It is John who is acting in the school play.
It is John and Peter who are acting in the school play.

I shall not go into more detail about the 'It + BE + noun/pronoun who/which/that/Ø ...' cleft construction, because grammarians do not agree on how it should be analysed. If you use it, remember that 'it' is always followed by a singular form of BE; the relative pronoun is followed by a verb in the person of its antecedent, the noun or pronoun following BE.

If you wish to read what some grammarians think about this, try:

Calude, Andreea S (2009), 'Cleft Constructions in Spoken English', Berlin: VDM
Collins, P (1991), 'Cleft and pseudo-cleft constructions in English', London: Routledge
Huddleston, Rodney and Pullum, Geoffrey (2002), 'The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language', Cambridge: CUP
Quirk, Randolph et al (1985), 'A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, London: Longman


I hope this helps.

Best wishes,

Jed

English as a Second Language

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Jed Webb

Expertise

I can assist with questions about English grammar (syntax, morphology, pronunciation and spelling)from learners taking such examinations as TOEFL, IELTS, FCE and CAE and other internationally recognised tests.

Experience

I have over forty years of experience in the teaching of modern languages, twenty-four of them in the Teaching of English as a Second Language. I have been an examiner for FCE, BEC and IELTS examinations, and a teacher trainer on courses leading to the Trinity College Certificate in TESOL.

Organizations
The Philological Society The International Phonetic Association The College of Teachers The International Association of Teachers of EFL The Royal Society of Arts (Fellow)

Publications
British Journal of Language Teaching, Vol XIX Nos I and II Education Today, Vol 41, Nos 1 and 3 Co-Author: Nix and Webb (1984) 'Creative English', Bad Homburg: Verlag Gehlen Contributor: Nix and Riederer (1973), 'Bottoms Up', Bad Homburg: Verlag Gehlen Rosenau and Nix, (1979), 'Look it up', Bad Homburg: Verlag Gehlen Nix and Ringholz, 'English in Projects', Bad Homburg: Verlag Gehlen

Education/Credentials
BA (English), University of Durham. Qualified Teacher Status, UK Department of Education and Science Further and Adult Education Teacher's Certificate, City and Guilds of London Institute ACP(TESOL), College of Preceptors Dip TESOL, Trinity College, London Dip Ed (ELT), Exeter University ACP (Management Studies in Education), College of Teachers Certificate of Proficiency in the Phonetics of English, International Phonetic Association

Past/Present Clients
I have taught: General and Business English classes for: Alcan, Allianz Versicherung, Robert Bosch, Daimler-Benz, Ford, Hewlett Packard, Kodak, Mövenpick, Radiomobil (O2), Siemens, Unilever. TOEFL and FCE classes for: eská Spoitelna,SOB, Czech Ministry of Trade, Czech Statistics Office.

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