Language Reports

These Kinds of Words are Kind of Tricky

October 2019

Kind, type and sort are three common words in English that denote category membership. Known as species nouns, type nouns or varietal classifiers, they are useful words for our pattern-seeking brains. This article will address some tricky questions about grammatical agreement in type-noun expressions and examine how these expressions have extended their usage to convey a variety of notions.

Agreement in Type-noun Phrases

Type nouns often appear in phrases like a type of sauce, in which the preposition of links a type noun (kind, sort, type, variety, genre, etc.) to a prepositional complement, a noun denoting the set to which the type belongs. The careful language lover should keep in mind that this construction is very similar in appearance to, but grammatically distinct from, other of-phrases such as partitive phrases denoting quantity (e.g. two pieces of cake, a crate of oranges).

In type-noun phrases, it is the first noun that operates as the head, the word that contains the core meaning of the noun phrase and establishes its grammatical number.

Two types of spicy sauce were added to the dish.
Not Two types of spicy sauce *was added to the dish.

The verb should agree with the plural head noun types rather than the singular second noun sauce.

When the plural demonstrative pronouns those and these precede the type noun, writers often unwittingly produce unorthodox mixes in grammatical number.

Criticized: These sort of awards are highly coveted.
Criticized: This sort of awards are highly coveted.
Accepted: These sorts of awards are highly coveted.

Constructions like these sort of awards are very common; even the New York Times has had to apologize for their frequent use of them.[1] Usage guides recommend that you respect the general rule of grammatical agreement in these constructions. As such, the head of the noun phrase, the determiner and the verb should all agree in number.

Grammatical agreement does not always have the final word. For example, the type-noun phrase all manner of, which is an idiomatic expression meaning “many different kinds of”, is preferred over the grammatically orthodox all manners* of* by a ratio of 290-to-1 in the British National Corpus. This is an example of when notional agreement overrides grammatical agreement, with all manner of effectively functioning as a determiner instead of the head of the noun phrase.

All manner of plot twists ensue.

The verb agrees in number with the prepositional complement plot twists, which functions as the head of the type-noun phrase.

Attorney-client privilege […] can and must withstand all manner of legal aggression. —Slate

A Variety Of

The expression a variety of is sometimes used as a type-noun phrase. It can denote either “a diverse group of” or “a particular type of”. Its first meaning functions as a determiner and takes the prepositional complement as its head. Its second meaning functions as a type-noun phrase, taking the type noun as its head.

Meaning 1: A variety of people are going to attend the conference.
Meaning 2: The jalapeño is a variety of chili pepper that is rich in vitamins A and C.

Types of Thing Versus Types of Things

Another thorny grammatical question is when to make the prepositional complement singular, and when to make it plural. Normally, the prepositional complement matches in number with the type noun. However, there is some variation.

When the head noun is singular, the second noun, if countable, should be singular.

a type of pear
Not a type of *pears

When the head noun is plural, the second noun, if countable, is usually plural.

three types of algorithms
Rarer: three types of algorithm

If the second noun can be treated as uncountable or countable, it can appear as either uncountable or plural.

several types of treatment
several types of treatments

A plural prepositional complement (algorithms, treatments) can highlight the diverseness of the set, whereas a singular prepositional complement (algorithm, treatment) can convey the set’s overarching similarities.

And of course, when the second noun is always uncountable, it remains uncountable regardless of the type noun’s number.

a kind of transportation
various kinds of transportation

A Variety of Uses

Hedging

The nouns kind and sort (but not type) are often employed in hedging constructions: sentences that convey equivocation. Whereas the type-noun phrase in A salamander is a kind of amphibian conveys clear category membership, the type-noun phrase can also signal vagueness and uncertainty (e.g. The novel is a kind of homage to his childhood), or that the kind in question is not the best example of the overall category (e.g. Is this some kind of joke?). In sentences involving such hedging constructions, removing the type-noun phrase actually reduces vagueness and strengthens the category membership.

Kurz is once again proving his reputation as a kind of boy wonder of European politics. —National Review

Without hedging: Kurz is once again proving his reputation as a boy wonder of European politics.

But for me, there’s also a kind of robotic feel to those records. —FLOOD Magazine

Technically, a ‘D’ is passing, but it’s a sort of a we-don’t-really-mean-it pass. —Inside Higher Ed (blog)

Notice that the prepositional complement in the example above also takes the indefinite article “a” (a sort of a we-don’t really-mean-it pass). This determiner appears occasionally in type-noun phrases that are informal (e.g. What kind of a dog is that?) or that hedge (e.g. it’s a sort of a bluish colour), but not in type-noun phrases of the more literal kind (The Norway pine is a type of *a pine tree).

Further, the expressions of a kind and of a sort (or of sorts) have become lexicalized to mean “an unusual or poor example of”.

Their outdoor workshop doubles as a beachside resort, of sorts, where visitors sleep in hammocks with books covering their faces from the morning sun. —Edmonton Journal
It’s not giving too much away to say that redemption, of a kind, will ensue. —The New York Times

The informal expressions kind of and sort of are used adverbially to mean “slightly” or “approximately”:

The outcome was sort of surprising.
Things just kind of fell into place.

They are often phonetically reduced in very informal contexts to kinda and sorta.

Oh, how we kinda-sorta miss those swoopy bangs. —The Loop

X-type

The word type has developed a suffixal use that means “similar to” or “in the same category as”, comparable to the suffixes -like and -esque.

a mint-green Nike leotard-type number with fishnet tights —The Cut
I don’t want to turn this into a Kanye-and-Taylor-Swift-type situation —Jimmy Kimmel on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

It Takes All Sorts to Make a Language

After partaking in this exploration of type nouns, we hope you have grown to appreciate the diversity and complexities of basic words like kind, type and sort. It truly does take all sorts of words to make a language!


  1. Corbett, Philip B. After the Deadline: These Kind of Problems. The New York Times, 2009.  ↩

 

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