Singular or plural?

The most common way to form plurals in English is simply to add -s to a noun: one reporter, two reporters; one desk, two desks; one laptop, two laptops. So does that mean any noun that ends in -s is automatically plural?

Not necessarily. Consider two fields that journalists cover regularly: politics and economics. There’s that quality of character journalists are expected to have and exercise: ethics. And then there’s what the business is all about: news.

Let’s start with an old newsroom joke, attributed to various journalists going back as far as New York’s own Horace Greeley (1811-1872):

          “Are there any news?”

          “Not a single new.”

Get the picture? News is the aggregate of all the reports of the day; therefore it’s uncountable, singular. Merriam-Webster online describes the word as “noun plural but singular in construction.” So it takes verbs in singular form: Is there any news?

Politics? Another “noun plural but singular or plural in construction.” When it’s used to mean a single topic — Politics is my favorite beat —  it’s singular. But when referring to a person’s political opinions or a set of relations, it’s plural:

          David’s politics are very conservative.

          Office politics were driving me crazy, so I quit.

Economics? The same. Referring to a social science, it’s singular; referring to a set of conditions, it’s plural:

          Economics is often called “the dismal science.”.

          The economics of the project make it impossible to proceed.

Ethics? Similarly, singular for a field of study, plural for  a person’s moral standards:

          Ethics is a field that requires critical thinking skills.

          Strong ethics are required for a journalist to be trustworthy.

And what about a major news event of the summer, the Olympics? Plural, according to Ask the Editor at apstylebook.com:

     Q. The Olympics is, or the Olympics are? Thanks – from Charlotte on Mon, Oct 08, 2007

         A. The Olympics are …

It’s short for the Olympic games.

Collective nouns tend to be singular: My class is covering the election tomorrow. The company is no longer turning a profit. But here’s a significant difference between British and American English. In what I call “English-speaking countries” — that is, those that follow British usage — words like government and corporation (or the name of one) are considered plural:

          The government have decided to raise taxes.

          Barclays have reported record profits for the third quarter.

In America, they’re singular:

          The government has decided . . .

           Barclays has reported . . . 

Sports teams are treated much the same, at least in Britain. The British will say Manchester United have won again — an apparently singular subject, the name of a team, but a plural verb. In America, most names of sports teams are plural anyway —  the Yankees, the Cubs, the Red Sox (yes, Sox is plural, a variation on socks) — so they naturally take plural verbs.

What about number, as in a recent concert review:

At Thursday night’s performance in Symphony Hall, there were a visibly uncomfortable number of empty seats.

Shouldn’t that be there was a number, since number is singular? Again, from AP’s Ask the Editor:

 Q. Should “a number of” phrase be followed by a singular or plural noun? For example, “A number of options is/are available.” — from Bend, Ore. on Sat, Mar 22, 2008

A. A number of options are available, based on this guidance in Fowler’s Modern English Usage: When the word number is itself the subject, it is a safe rule to treat it as singular when it has a definite article, and as plural when it has an indefinite.

I prefer to think of it this way: a number of has become an idiom meaning more than one. So I vote that there were a number is permissible.

Finally, none. The word means not one, so in theory is should be singular. Under AP style:

When used in this sense, it always takes singular verbs and pronouns: None of the seats was in the right place. Use a plural verb only if the sense is no two or no amount: None of the consultants agree on the same approach. None of the taxes have been paid.

But at the New York Times, none is considered plural:  None of the seats were in the right place. The moral of the story: check the style for your publication.

Any other questions about singular and plural? Leave a comment or e-mail them to diane.nottle@journalism.cuny.edu.

19 Responses to “Singular or plural?”

  1. Angela
    September 30, 2013 at 6:08 pm #

    Hi Diane,

    I’d like to request your expertise!

    In this situation, “…affecting individuals regardless of
    socioeconomic backgrounds..”, would ‘background’ singular or
    ‘backgrounds’ plural be the grammatically correct agreement?

    Appreciate your help!

    Angela

    • Diane Nottle
      October 21, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

      In my opinion. either one would be OK. “Because of (their) socioeconomic backgrounds” works because “their” is understood. But I prefer “background” because it’s the more general term — like race, religion and other categories or conditions.

  2. meerun
    February 3, 2014 at 10:06 am #

    want to know if sick/ annual/ leave, leave remains singular or is plural?

  3. Diane Nottle
    February 3, 2014 at 10:14 am #

    It’s singular. The / means “or” — sick leave or annual leave. The only time “leave” might be plural would be in a case like “He took three leaves from 2001 to 2010,” meaning he took leave three times.

  4. Pamela
    August 10, 2015 at 7:41 pm #

    Q: Whether “which” is singular or plural, in the sentence: “Other groups offered scholarships for sailing, cooking and camps, which now add/adds up to about …”

    Is the agreement with add/adds based on the enumerated items – “they add up to..”, or is “which” a substitute for “it”, as in”it adds up to…”

    Thanks!

  5. Diane Nottle
    August 11, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

    Plural, because “which” refers back to “scholarships.” So it’s “which add up . . .”

  6. Dr. Roni
    March 8, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

    I am a writing tutor and would like to know if “athletes have little time to practice their sport” is correct and why it sounds correct, or if the sentence should be “athletes have little time to practice their sports.” I vote for “sport,” but I can not explain why.
    Thanks!

    • Diane Nottle
      April 10, 2016 at 4:22 pm #

      “Sports,” because they’re not all doing the same sport.

  7. Mike Goronsky
    October 22, 2016 at 10:13 am #

    AP Style is all about concision and clarity.

    If we want to create plurals of words as words, and phrases as phrases — in their inflected forms — would AP probably do the following?  I cannot find an answer to this anywhere on the planet. No recasts, please.

    Sarah used too many “‘was’s,” “‘is’s,” “has’s,” “thank-you’s,” “maybe’s,” “hello’s,” “do’s and don’ts” and “solidly’s”
    in her essay.

    Do you agree with the example sentence above, with the punctuation of inflected forms of words and phrases? I think this would be very clear to the reader upon first read.

    Thank you.

  8. Diane Nottle
    October 22, 2016 at 10:32 am #

    Good question — and a tricky one. The problem here is that some of those words are being used as nouns, which can be made plural, and some are verbs, which are more difficult. You should check AP style directly, but I’d vote for “thank-yous,” “maybes,” “hellos” and “dos and don’ts” (a common expression). Better yet, rewrite the sentence:

    Sarah used “‘was,” “‘is,” “has,” “thank-you,” “maybe,” “hello,” “do’s and don’ts” and “solidly” too many times in her essay.

    • Mike Goronsky
      October 22, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

      Do you think that “ises,” “hases,” “wases,” “shes,” and “hes” looks confusing as the inflected forms?

      Thank you. 🙂

      • Mike Goronsky
        October 22, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

        An English website suggested using a single marker before and after the word/phrase as word/phrase in order to prevent them as looking possessive.
        Do you concur? (See below.)

        Sarah used too many ‘was’s, ‘is’s, ‘has’s, ‘thank-you’s, ‘maybe’s, ‘hello’s, ‘do’s and don’ts’ and ‘solidly’s
        in her essay.

  9. Diane Nottle
    October 22, 2016 at 1:13 pm #

    Not only confusing; in text, they look awful.

  10. Mike Goronsky
    October 22, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

    A hyphen question: When the word “to” is used for an inclusive range, I think that full hyphenation (not suspended hyphenation) should be used throughout. Do you agree? (See below.)

    a $75-million-to-$85-million-a-year industry
    a $75,000-to-$85,000-per-year income
    a group of 5-to-10-year-old children
    a group of 5-to-10-year-olds
    20-to-30-year mortgages
    10-to-15-minute traffic delays
    10-to-20-percent-a-year increases
    15%-to-20%-per-year reduction in crime

    I know when “and” or “or” is used, we do use the suspending hyphen — for example,
    “20- and 30-year mortgages” or
    “20- or 30-year mortgages.” But when “to” is used, I think that we can hyphenate fully, as I did above.

    Please, no recasts.

    Thank you kindly.

    • Diane Nottle
      October 24, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

      Those all look fine to me, except that I’m not sure you need them in the millions ($75 million-to-$85 million-a-year . . .). But frankly, I would have recast some of the longer ones. The very long compound modifiers aren’t especially reader-friendly.

      • Mike
        October 30, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

        I’m seeing ranges punctuated like this below (without ugly suspending hyphens)…I think this ‘modern’ approach to punctuation is very clear without the excess punctuation clutter.

        Do you agree with all examples below in terms of punctuation!

        a 10-20 mile radius
        a 55-65 mph speed zone
        a 30-40 foot long piece of lumber
        a 3-5 mile wide stretch of land
        a 30-40 foot deep pond
        a 15-20% a year increase in sales
        a $70-$80 million a year industry
        a 20% a year increase
        a $90,000-$100,000 per year income
        an $80 million a year industry
        5-10 year old children
        a group of 5-10 year olds
        20-25, 30-35-, and 40-45 year old women
        a group of 20-25, 30-35-, and 40-45 year olds
        20-30 year mortgages
        15-20 minute traffic delays

        • Diane Nottle
          November 2, 2016 at 2:32 pm #

          This is really a matter of a publication’s chosen style. Personally, I prefer “10-to-20-mile,” etc., but that’s the style I had drummed into my head for decades. The rule is, follow the style of the publication you’re working for. I would argue for repeating “million” in “$70-million-to-$80-million-” for clarity’s sake (not $70 to $80 million), but it’s how we tend to speak, and some publications do allow it in text.

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