Sign Up For Our Free Grammar E-Newsletter

These Nouns Present Singular Problems

Let’s talk about nouns with split personalities.

A collective noun (e.g., group, team, jury, flock, herd) is a paradox: singular in form (the team, a jury, one flock) but plural in meaning—who ever heard of a one-person group or a one-goat herd?

Whenever we use a collective noun as a subject, we must decide whether it takes a singular or a plural verb. American writers and editors prefer the singular form unless logic demands the plural. The key is context: is the sentence about the group as a unit or is it more about the individuals in that group? It is advisable to write The class is studying Shakespeare. But it is also advisable to write The class are studying at their desks.

Nonetheless, most sticklers cringe when they hear or read “The class are studying …,” no matter what follows. If someone is determined never to use a plural verb with a collective noun, there are ways to avoid the problem. In the above example, a simple fix is to substitute students for class.

Let’s try a few more. The jury are fighting among themselves. Make it jurors instead. The regiment were invited to bring their friends and families. Switching to soldiers would be an improvement. Finding themselves at a stalemate, the committee decided to put down their pens and repair to their homes. You could say committee members, or you could rewrite the whole stodgy sentence: Unable to end the stalemate, the committee decided to adjourn.

Sometimes choosing the “right” form is a matter of taste. Some writers would be fine with The audience jumped to its feet. Others would insist on jumped to their feet, feeling that its turns the audience into a cartoonish beast with a plethora of lower extremities.

There is a subgroup of collective nouns that take a plural verb more often than not. Examples include bunch, handful, variety, and—though some may not agree—couple. Most readers would wince at the awkward singular verbs in these sentences: A bunch of motorcycles is speeding through town; A handful of his friends was urging him not to run; A variety of delicious fruits is used in the dessert.

As for couple, many writers want it plural unless the sentence sounds absurd otherwise—and such sentences are rare. After all, what does couple mean if not “the two of them”? Keep couple plural, and you will avoid abominations like Their friends say the couple looks alike or The couple was taking naps in adjoining rooms.

When collective nouns become roadblocks to effective sentences, resourceful writers can always find ways around them.


Pop quiz

1. The crowd is/are filling up the arena.
2. The enemy consists of/consist of that country’s fiercest warriors.
3. The public is/are invited to sit anywhere on the lawn.


Pop quiz answers

1. The crowd is filling up the arena.
2. The enemy consists of that country’s fiercest warriors.
3. A good case could be made for either option.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, July 1, 2014, at 9:02 pm

Be Careful with the -a Team

The first letter of the alphabet is also a common English word that is virtually synonymous with one. As a word, a is the very antithesis of plurality.

This might help explain why there’s so much confusion about a group of words that I call “the -a team.” Here they are: bacteria, criteria, data, media, phenomena, Sierra. As you can see, all end in the letter a, which just sounds so darned singular that these words continue to confound even careful writers and speakers. Because the fact is, they’re all plural.

Bacteria Staphylococcus is a virulent form of bacteria. No problem there, but Staphylococcus is a virulent bacteria, well, now we have a problem. The singular is bacterium. So a sentence like The bacteria in the cut was infecting it is flawed—the bacteria were infecting it.

Criteria It’s the plural of criterion, a standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. The sentence Honesty is our chief criteria is ungrammatical; there can’t be only one criteria. Make it Honesty is our chief criterion or Honesty is one of our chief criteria. Your criteria are your standards, plural.

Those who know that criteria is plural aren’t out of the woods yet either: many believe the singular is “criterium.” And there are some who will reveal to you their “criterias.”

Data John B. Bremner, in Words on Words, states unequivocally, “The word is plural.” This one is thorny, because the singular, datum, is virtually nonexistent in English. Many people see data as a synonym for information, and to them, These data are very interesting sounds downright bizarre. Maybe, but it’s also correct. English scholar Theodore M. Bernstein says, “Some respected and learned writers have used data as a singular. But a great many more have not.”

Media Among the language’s most abused words is media, a plural noun; medium is the singular. A medium is a system of mass communication: The medium of television is a prominent component of the mass media.

Every day we hear and read statements like The media is irresponsible or The media has a hidden agenda. In those sentences, media should be followed by are and have.

There are some who prefer and defend the media is and the media has. To them, the various means of mass communication—newspapers, radio, TV, magazines, blogs, etc.—make up one “media.”

But writers should insist on the media are. It’s important that people think of the media as many voices, opinions, and perspectives rather than one monolithic entity.

Phenomena This troublemaker baffles even articulate speakers. Phenomena is plural; phenomenon is singular.

“Management is a universal phenomenon,” declares a business website. But a commentator on national television had it exactly backward. He spoke of “the phenomena of climate change” and later used phenomenon as a plural. Others say “phenomenas” when they mean phenomena.

Sierra Avoid “Sierras” when the topic is the vast California mountain range. An online camping guide says, “Translating from Spanish, sierra is plural in itself.” The Sierra Nevada Alliance, a conservation organization, elaborates: “The Sierra Nevada is a single, distinct unit, both geographically and topographically, and is well described by una sierra nevada. Strictly speaking, therefore, we should never pluralize the name—such as Sierras, or Sierra Nevadas, or even High Sierras …”

“Strictly speaking,” you say? What a concept!

Tom Stern

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at 5:05 pm

Apostrophes: Worth the Trouble

Newsflash: apostrophes are not optional. If they ever become so, the writer-reader relationship will be one step closer to dysfunctional. Still, many casual scribblers would rather not be bothered.

Apostrophes are a lot easier for those who slow down and do what it takes to get them right. For instance, to show possession with singular nouns that don’t end in s, all you have to do is add ’s (girl’s, farm’s, love’s). Most people can handle that. Admittedly, trouble arises with certain other kinds of nouns. We will deal with some of those problems in weeks to come.

Today we’ll examine singular nouns that end in s, with lens, cactus, and series as examples. Such words can become confusing when they are made plural, then made possessive.

To form the singular possessive form of a word like lens, just add ’s: the lens’s reflection. But how about more than one lens’s reflection? The key rule is this: To show possession with a plural noun ending in s, add only an apostrophe. You can’t go wrong if you take this in two steps. First write the plural, lenses. Then add an apostrophe … and there you are: the lenses’ reflection.

It’s different with cactus, because the plural is cacti. The key rule is this: To show possession with a plural noun not ending in s, add ’s. So, depending on your meaning, you would write either the cactus’s spines for one cactus* or the cacti’s spines for two or more cacti.

Now consider series, which is the same word whether singular or plural. If a scientist has conducted a sequence of lab experiments, we would write about the series’s outcome. Because we mean one series, we add ’s, just as we would do with any singular noun.*

But what if the scientist then ran another cycle of tests and compared it to the first? Then we’d be reporting on the two series’ results. Because we mean more than one series, we add only an apostrophe to series, just as we would do with any plural noun ending in s.

*Note: Although we endorse an ’s for all possessive singular nouns ending in s, not everyone agrees. Some writers and editors add only an apostrophe: the bus’ route, my boss’ orders.

Then there’s the Associated Press Stylebook, which generally backs the ’s but prescribes only an apostrophe when the word that follows begins with an s. This means that the Associated Press would recommend the cactus’s needles, but also the cactus’ spines because of the first s in spines.

Does that seem odd to you, too?


Pop Quiz

1. That specie’s/species’/species’s status was changed to endangered.

2. McDermott is the people’s/peoples’ choice.

3. Those company’s/companies’/companie’s profits are way up.

4. Her many dress’s/dress’/dresses’ hangers were strewn around the room.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. That species’s status was changed to endangered. (but some would endorse species’)

2. McDermott is the people’s choice.

3. Those companies’ profits are way up.

4. Her many dresses’ hangers were strewn around the room.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Sunday, May 4, 2014, at 9:59 pm

When They Is a Cop-out

Ours is a language of traps and pitfalls. Anyone serious about writing in English has to take on problems no one has ever quite solved.

One of the most obstinate of these, as inescapable as it is confounding, concerns singular pronouns that have plural connotations (everyone, nobody, anyone, somebody, etc.).

Even fine writers on occasion succumb to the temptation of using they to refer to a singular pronoun. What would you do with this sentence: Someone left his? her? his or her? their? book on my desk. For decades it was customary to say someone left his book, the assumption being that his really meant his or her (in the same way mankind comprises both men and women). But that stopped being acceptable in the 1960s—the Women’s Liberation movement was having none of it.

Many writers nowadays hold their noses and go with his or her. It’s hard to find a less elegant solution, but grammatically, someone left his or her book does the job; however, someone left their book, although taboo to purists, is what you’d most likely hear in conversation.

Now consider this technically correct sentence: I asked everybody, but he wouldn’t tell me. Anybody who would write that must be tone-deaf, perverse, facetious, or fanatical. What good is a “technically correct” sentence that is so silly and confusing? Changing it to but he or she wouldn’t tell me is hardly an improvement. If you chose to avoid this mess by writing but they wouldn’t tell me, it would be hard to blame you. But if good grammar is important, how about I asked everybody, but no one would tell me.

Last November, a West Coast newspaper editorial dealt with the problem this way: “Under California law, the governor is allowed to choose a replacement for a statewide-elected official who vacates her post midterm.” Fair enough, but though the motive is laudable, the sentence feels somehow forced. Why not replace “vacates her post” with “leaves office.”

Let’s try to rewrite the following sentences and mollify the curmudgeons …

Read a book to a child. Maybe they’ll do something good with their life.

Rewrite: Read a book to a child. Maybe that youngster will accomplish something in life.

If anyone wants to become the next David Letterman, they won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

Rewrite: Anyone who wants to become the next David Letterman won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or each will bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

Rewrite: The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or they will each bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

English scholars say that using they to agree with singular pronouns can be traced back at least seven centuries. But that doesn’t mean it’s all right to do so. It simply means that there’s nothing new about avoiding challenges when we can take the easy way out.


Pop Quiz

How would you deal with pronoun inconsistencies in these sentences? Compare your solutions with ours in the answers section.

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get their money back.

2. What if someone asks you what you’re doing at their car?

3. What we don’t want is for someone to turn their unit into a full-time vacation inn.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get a full refund.

2. What if someone asks you, “What are you doing at my car?”

3. What we don’t want is for owners to turn their units into full-time vacation inns.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, April 28, 2014, at 6:40 pm

The Wicked Of

What would prompt H.W. Fowler to pick on the word of?

Fowler (1858-1933), whom many regard as the dean of English-language scholars, ascribed to of “the evil glory of being accessary to more crimes against grammar than any other.”

Do not be fooled by looks. Weighing in at a svelte two letters, this petite preposition couldn’t appear more guileless and benign. But of is the culprit in many, perhaps most, subject-verb blunders.

Those who watch their English must constantly remind themselves not to mistake the noun in an of phrase for the actual subject. This is a key rule for understanding subjects. Hasty writers, speakers, readers, and listeners might miss the error in the following sentence: A bouquet of roses lend color and fragrance to a room.

Make it A bouquet of roses lends color and fragrance to a room. In the sentence, roses is the object of the preposition of. The true subject is bouquet (bouquet lends, not roses lend).

But once we learn that principle, here comes of to stir up yet more mischief. First, consider this sentence: He is the only one of those men who is always courteous. Where’s the mischief, you may well ask; who refers to one, calling for the singular verb is. True enough—but wait, we’re not finished.

Now look at this almost identical sentence: He is one of those men who is always courteous. That is incorrect. The correct sentence is He is one of those men who are always courteous. This time the word who refers to men, requiring the plural verb are.

Are you skeptical? If we slightly change the word order, which verb would you select: Of those men who is/are always courteous, he is one. Would anyone choose men who is?

If any armchair grammarians remain unconvinced, let them try to explain this sentence: Pope Francis is one of the popes who has led the Catholic Church for almost two thousand years. Obviously, it’s utter nonsense unless the verb is have led. It may madden us, it may sadden us, but popes—despite being the object of of—necessitates the plural verb have led.

Thus does of sabotage our best efforts. First, we train ourselves to ignore an of phrase in order to find the true subject. Then a he is one of those sentence comes along and we find that the object of the preposition of is the key to finding the correct verb.

Mr. Fowler, you do have a point.


Pop Quiz

These sentences contain prepositional of phrases. Correct the ones that are wrong.

 1. Neither of the books have arrived yet.

 2. Yasif is one of those people who likes Mozart.

 3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always work hard.

 4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable.

 5. Each of the brothers said they were sorry.


Pop Quiz Answers

 1. Neither of the books has arrived yet.

 2. Yasif is one of those people who like Mozart.

 3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always works hard.

 4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable. CORRECT

 5. Each of the brothers said he was sorry.


To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014, at 5:03 pm