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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.

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


Based Off Is Off Base

Enough is enough. It’s time to blow the whistle on an obnoxious faux idiom that has the popular culture under its spell. The offending usage is based off and its alternate form, based off of.

Both are everywhere. One hears and sees them constantly over the airwaves, in print, and online. A Google search yields these nauseous nuggets: “Dr. House is based off of Sherlock Holmes.” “Their favorite classic movies are based off old fairy tales.” “It’s basically a stretched out HTC One M8, which is what the tablet is based off of.” There are hundreds more.

Everyone knows the correct phrase, based on, which has been around forever. But somehow, on became off, or worse, off of—a compound preposition that all English authorities reject as substandard.

The logical conclusion is that anyone who says “based off” doesn’t know what based means. As a verb, to base means “to form a foundation for.” The noun base refers to the underlying part that something rests on, not off.

The words base and basis are closely related and sometimes synonymous. Would anybody say, “The board meets off a daily basis”?

There’s really no excuse for based off. Whoever coined it was just fooling around or talking too fast. It subsequently caught on with other knuckleheads, and now there are those who defend its legitimacy.

But based off is another example of what might be called “Frankenstein formations.” You know, grab a part from here, another part from over there, and stitch them together to create a monstrously unsuitable word or phrase. Witness how the unholy merging of regardless and irrespective begat irregardless, a gruesome beast that even pedants with pitchforks can’t drive from the countryside.

Today’s high schools and colleges turn out students with negligible language skills, and the result is heedless writing and speech. Once upon a time, people who knew their pronouns said, “You and I should invite her and her husband for dinner.” Now you’re more likely to hear, “You and me should invite she and her husband for dinner.” For some perverse reason, those who don’t watch their language tend to say things that are the precise opposite of correct.

That would seem to explain how based on became based off.

 

Pop Quiz

Two of the options in each sentence below are correct. Can you identify the “Frankenstein formation”?

1. I am calling in regards to/as regards/in regard to the job opening.
2. The paragraph comprises/is comprised of/is composed of three sentences.
3. The novel centers on/revolves around/centers around marriage in the eighteenth century.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The phrase in regards to is nonstandard.
2. The phrase is comprised of is incorrect. The word comprise means “to be composed of,” so “comprised of” would mean “composed of-of.”
3. The phrase centers around is nonstandard.

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Posted on Monday, June 23, 2014, at 4:13 pm


Italics vs. Quotation Marks

Up until a few decades ago, writers had two choices: write in longhand or use a typewriter. Typewriters had one font. The characters were one size only. If you wanted to cut and paste, you needed scissors and adhesive tape.

Writing in italics was all but impossible, except for professional printing companies.

Thanks to today’s computer keyboards, we now have access to italics. So we need a sensible plan for when to use them and when to use quotation marks. Here is a formula we recommend: Put the title of an entire composition in italics. Put the title of a short work—one that is or could be part of a larger undertaking—in quotation marks.

By “composition” we mean a creative, journalistic, or scholarly enterprise that is whole, complex, a thing unto itself. This includes books, movies, plays, TV shows, newspapers, magazines, websites, music albums, operas, musical theater, paintings, sculptures, and other works of art.

The following sentence illustrates the principle: Richard Burton performed the song “Camelot” in the 1960 Broadway musical Camelot. Although the word is the same, “Camelot” the song takes quotation marks because it’s part of a larger work—namely, a full-length show called Camelot.

Italics are also widely used with names of ships, trains, and planes, e.g., the Titanic, the 20th Century Limited, the Spirit of St. Louis. (Note: with ships, do not italicize prefixes such as USS or HMS.)

Quotation marks are customary for components, such as chapter titles in a book, individual episodes of a TV series, songs on a music album, and titles of articles or essays in print or online.

Titles of plays, long and short, are generally italicized. Titles of poems and shorter works of fiction are generally in quotation marks. Long poems, short films, and the extended stories known as “novellas” are a gray area; some people italicize the titles, others put them in quotation marks.

You won’t go wrong with this policy: For a full-blown composition, put the title in italics. For something smaller and less ambitious, e.g., a short story as opposed to a sprawling novel, put the title in quotation marks. That’s the long and the short of it.

 

Pop quiz
Place italics and quotation marks where they should go.

1. Elvis Presley sang Love Me Tender in the movie Love Me Tender.
2. Chapter 4 of Beautiful Ruins is called The Smile of Heaven.
3. Who sang God Save the Queen on the HMS Bounty?

 

Pop quiz answers
1. Elvis Presley sang “Love Me Tender” in the movie Love Me Tender.
2. Chapter 4 of Beautiful Ruins is called “The Smile of Heaven.”
3. Who sang “God Save the Queen” on the HMS Bounty? (no points if you italicized HMS)

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Posted on Monday, June 16, 2014, at 10:39 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

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


Apostrophes: Not Always Possessive

Apostrophes’ chief purpose is to show possession, but these marks have other functions, too. They alert readers when, and where, one or more letters are missing from a word, such as the no that is dropped when cannot becomes can’t. Or they create separation to avoid confusion when two elements are combined for special reasons. For example, in When Colin writes a’s, they look like u’s, the apostrophes prevent us from thinking that the writer meant as and us. It’s hard to imagine any credible writer not using apostrophes for a’s and u’s, but beyond that, apostrophe unanimity is hard to find.

Apostrophes have a complicated relationship with plurals. Different writers have different approaches when writing the plural forms of abbreviations, some letters and numbers, and words that do not normally take plurals.

• What’s the plural of an abbreviation with periods, like Ph.D.? There’s no right answer. Some write Ph.D.s, some write Ph.D.’s.

• Most writers use apostrophes when pluralizing single capital letters (I earned three A’s), but there are some who would write three As. With groups of two or more capital letters, apostrophes seem less necessary (two new MPs, learn your ABCs), but some writers insist on them.

• Single-digit numbers are usually spelled out, but when they aren’t, you are just as likely to see 2s and 3s as 2’s and 3’s. With double digits and above, many (but not everyone) regard the apostrophe as superfluous. Most writers nowadays favor the 1900s, but some go with the 1900’s. If numerals are used to identify decades, the ’30s is widely used, but you will also see the 30’s, and occasionally even the ’30’s.

• A keyboard caveat: it takes extra effort to generate an apostrophe when it is the first character in numbers or words like the ’30s or ’tis (for “it is”). If you’re not careful, you’ll instead type an opening single quotation mark (), which is a backward and upside-down apostrophe. The result will be the30s and ‘tis, which finicky readers consider an indefensible lapse.

• Making words plural with ’s is usually a big mistake, but some writers, as a courtesy to readers, will add ’s to words that don’t ordinarily become plural, as in no if’s, and’s, or but’s, or here are some do’s and don’t’s. Since two apostrophes in one word look clunky, you are more likely to see do’s and don’ts, which looks better, although don’ts is inconsistent with do’s. A better option might be to use italics to establish differentiation: no ifs, ands, or buts; some dos and don’ts.

• Let’s close with a possessive-apostrophe principle that confuses a lot of people. For the plurals of familiar compound nouns like driver’s license and master’s degree, the apostrophe stays the same; the plurals are driver’s licenses and master’s degrees. You may ask why not drivers’ licenses—after all, we’re talking about more than one driver, aren’t we? Well, yes and no. The driver’s in two driver’s licenses denotes that each license was issued to one driver only. The same reasoning applies to master’s degrees.

No punctuation mark causes more confusion and dissent than apostrophes. If we could get together on the rules, maybe people would use them more.

 

Pop Quiz

Find the incorrect sentence(s).

1. You used too many ands in that paragraph.
2. Today’s multiplication exercise will focus on 6’s and 7’s.
3. The decade of the ‘80s was marked by scandals.
4. In her note, the Ls all looked like Es.

 

Pop Quiz Answer

Three of the sentences would be acceptable to at least some editors and publishers. The one incorrect sentence is No. 3: The decade of the ‘80s was marked by scandals. Make it ’80s, with an apostrophe.

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Posted on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, at 3:29 pm