View Full Version : Oldest--plurality?

03-20-2012, 09:42 PM
So, I saw this sentence:
"The oldest have begun to speak, or so I'm told."

It's a piece of dialog, and when I read it I think it's being plural, even though in context it refers to an individual.
Does "oldest" have any sort of plurality? The dictionary I use didn't indicate as such, but I would want to change that sentence to either:
"The eldest has begun to speak, or so I'm told."
"The oldest one has begun to speak, or so I'm told."

IDK . . .

03-20-2012, 09:56 PM
You wrote that the context reveals "oldest" is an individual. That means the sentence is incorrect, not because of the word "oldest" but because of the word "have." The sentence lacks noun-verb agreement--it has a singular noun with a plural verb. As written with the plural verb, the sentence indicates that "oldest" is plural, which is probably why it sounds to you as if "oldest" is plural. Seems to me the sentence can be corrected by simply changing "have" to "had."

Vemy Paw
03-20-2012, 10:03 PM
Isn't oldest refer to something most old?
Can there be more than one 'most' of something?

Using the word 'oldest' sounds singular to me.

03-20-2012, 10:57 PM
This one has me scratching my chin a little. The dictionary I consulted only lists "oldest" as an adjective, not a noun. But people sometimes use it as a noun. E.g., (talking about one's children) My *oldest* just started college. Or maybe it's not being used as a noun in that sentence--could be that the sentence is informal, and "oldest" is an adjective that modifies the understood noun "child." (My oldest child just started college.) That example has a singular "oldest," but I'm wondering if the same can be done with a plural "oldest." Consider your sentence. "The oldest have begun to speak, or so I'm told." The situation could be that there are a bunch of kids, aged 5-12, and they're supposed to be quiet for some reason, but the four twelve-year-olds (the oldest kids) have begun to speak. Perhaps that sentence is also informal, and "oldest" modifies the understood "children" ("The oldest children have begun to speak, or so I'm told.")

I see what Vemy Paw is saying about there only being one most old--so oldest must be singular. But maybe oldest can be plural, if it means people/objects that fall into the oldest group in a larger group. That's all I can come up with. http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/images/icons/icon7.gif

03-20-2012, 11:14 PM
I regard elder as referring to 'of two' - and oldest as referring to 'of more than two'.

'The oldest have begun to speak' makes no sense to me out of context but I can see how within contextual dialogue it could be perfectly acceptable, where the speaker was referring to one group of perhaps several groups of speakers who were participating in a debate and going to speak one after the other. The groups may have been split into age categories, and it's the character's way of saying "A member of the first (or oldest) group had started to speak".

Not the way I would perhaps have said it but then dialogue is privileged content and allowances are made for each character's idiosyncracies in speaking.

We are discussing dialogue out of context and that often suggests no definitive solution.

Jonathan Dalar
03-23-2012, 04:38 AM
What you're doing is writing an adjective and taking out the noun. We see examples of that from time to time, most specifically when we're using the command form.

(You) go get me a beer!

So when you omit a word in this context, you have to form verb agreement based on what the noun would be if it were included.

The oldest (children) have begun to speak, or so I'm told.

The oldest (child) has begun to speak, or so I'm told.

Your meaning will be inherent in the verb declension you use.

03-23-2012, 04:33 PM
Languages use shorthand quite a bit, and this is a case of an implied noun with the adjective "oldest". If the implied noun in this case is plural, then "have" is correct.

03-23-2012, 05:58 PM
It's dialogue, guys.