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

     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.

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