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Six foot tall, a herd of elephant: special use of the singular in certain syntactic contexts

English Language & Usage Asked on January 3, 2022

CambridgeGEL, page 1588 reads

Examples like She’s six foot tall involve a special use of the
singular form rather than a base plural: the difference between this
and How many feet are there in a mile? is a matter of syntax rather
than of inflectional morphology.

In a herd of elephant it is arguable that the construction
involves not a base plural, but a special use of the singular in
certain syntactic contexts (comparable to the six foot tall
construction).

What are that "special use" and those "syntactic contexts" the author refers to?

2 Answers

"Six foot" should be hyphenated ("six-foot") because it constitutes as single adjectival phrase. For the same reason, "foot" is in the singular. For example, "a six-foot soldier."

"Six feet" would be used (in the plural and without a hyphen) where "feet" is a noun within the sentence, and not part of an adjectival phrase: for example, "the soldier's head was six feet above the ground."

Answered by veritableinsights on January 3, 2022

MIDDLE ENGLISH fot /foːt/ "foot" : by far the most common plural form is feet, and fot is usually only used in contexts of the unit of length.

OED: Foot (pl. feet): lineal measure (Often in sing. when after numerals). 2. Ellipt. Foot-soldiers; †men of foot. Often after an ordinal, with ‘regiment of’ omitted.

Answered by GJC on January 3, 2022

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