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Singular and Plural: Getting it right

Posted on June 18, 2011 | Comments Off on Singular and Plural: Getting it right

English can be a difficult language. Getting the grammar right when it comes to singular and plural is usually easy, though. In almost all languages and dialects correct grammar demands subject and verb agree. There are derivative forms of the verb for each of the singular and plural, for each of first, second, and third person cases. In English many of the forms are the same; see the example with “to run” below.

Regular verbs in English are conjugated differently for singular and plural. Singular (for I, you, and he/she/it) for the regular verb “to run” is I run, you run, he/she/it runs. Note the “s” there at the end. For plural, it goes as we run, you (all) run, they run. [I’ll use the common colloquial version of the second person plural here, “you all” to make it clear when the second person plural is meant. It’s not standard English, but suits my purposes here very well.] That last “s” disappeared! Most verbs are like this; the “s” jumps around. Compare “the cat runs away” with “the cats run away.” As a general rule, “s” sticks to the plural noun and the singular verb. Not the clearest rule, but it works pretty well for all those regular(rule-following) verbs. Irregular verbs don’t have that handy “s” around all the time to help out, but the difference between singular and plural is usually easy to recognize unless it’s an irregular verb you’ve never seen before.

What if it’s hard to tell if the subject is singular or plural? In grade school, you may have learned about sentence decomposition. While language is rich and malleable, the regular form of English sentences is SVO, for subject-verb-object. Remember, the subject is the actor performing the verb upon the object. Even in languages where the order is different (which are the majority of languages, actually) the verb is conjugated according to the subject. In German, Korean, Hindi, for example,the order is subject-object-verb, but the verb is still conjugated in accordance with the subject, not the object, even though the object precedes the verb. Sentence decomposition means breaking up the sentence into the subject, object, and verb parts. We’ll worry about the subject mostly and how it helps conjugate the verb. This is particularly important in English where a whole lot of words can be included in the subject phrase. “The boy who ate apples while walking over bridges is stuck down a well” is a sentence where the subject, “the boy,” and the verb, “is,” are very separated. However, the subject is still singular, despite all the plural nouns (apples, bridges) preceding it.

The sentence “John run to the store” is incorrect, while “John runs to the store” is grammatically correct. We can replace “John” with “the boy” or “he” or “that child,” all of which are singular. In all cases, we still use the singular form of the verb, “runs.” The meaning has not been changed by those substitutions, so the verb need not change, either. In short, the subject is the same, so the verb stays the same even though the words we use for the subject are different. For plural verbs, we can do the same thing. “Susie and John run to the store” can become “the children…” or “they…” without changing any meaning.

This might seem trivial. It is. However, English has a lot of exceptions and odd rules. Even so, this same sentence decomposition works almost all the time to help with conjugation. It can become an issue when grammatical number and logical number do not coincide. When we talk about “John and Susie” it’s clear we’re talking about two children. “Children” is plural and the verb is conjugated accordingly. What happens when things are made of many parts? The first simple but non-trivial example comes in the form of “collective nouns.” For collective nouns, logical number and grammatical number don’t always agree.

Collective nouns are basically “whats” for uncountable things. You can’t really count the number of grains of sand on a beach or the number of coffee bits (whatever that would be) in a cup of coffee. Even if you could count it all up, it still wouldn’t tell you anything. Another way to think about it is that you could take away a few bits or a small part of the whole, and what remains is still basically the same. (Ignore for now the philosophical question of “how much straw can you remove from a bale and still call it a bale?)

Collective nouns are usually singular. “The coffee is hot” and “the sand is warm” are examples. Collective nouns do have plural forms, actually! “The coffees at Starbucks are great” is grammatically correct, though perhaps factually disputable. Here, “coffees” refers to the different kinds of coffees at a store. They’re probably countable, and probably pretty distinct. If you use sentence decomposition, you could likewise say, “The different kinds of coffee at Starbucks are great” or “The kinds are great” to convey the same statement. The latter example here has been reduced to just “the kinds” to be explicit. “Kinds” is plural and the verb is conjugated in plural as well. The difference should be clear. When talking about coffee in general, you use the singular. If you are being specific about the different kinds, you use the plural.

Now it actually starts to get complicated, but only if you don’t know how to apply the grammar for singular and plural. Almost everything is made up of smaller bits. Bales are made of straws of hay. Clothes are made of strands of fiber. Liquids are made of individual molecules. In principle, you could count all the individual parts. But that’s not usually helpful. A company stays the same even if somebody quits. A band still plays music without one of its instruments (perhaps better, perhaps worse). Sentence decomposition works here. For example:

Sony compete / competes against Nintendo every year for the hand-held market.

Using sentence decomposition it can be changed to, “The company competes every year against its rival…” “The company” is singular. (So is “rival,” but that’s unimportant here.) The plural form of course is “companies.” While this alternative may be true it is not equivalent to the original sentence; the meaning has changed. The original sentence stated a competition of Sony versus Nintendo, not Sony and some other number of companies against Nintendo. A company is singular, many companies together are plural.

“Microsoft are releasing an update to their console” is grammatically incorrect. Microsoft may be made of many employees, offices, computers, and so forth, but it is still just one company. What about “Stark Enterprises are releasing a new weapon?” Also incorrect. “Stark Enterprises” is a name – a proper noun to be precise – and as a singular entity takes the singular instead of the plural. Unfortunately, English is genuinely hairy here if you try to apply sentence decomposition as follows:

The enterprises is / are releasing a new weapon.

In this case, “are” is grammatically correct as “enterprises” is plural. But this is a bit of an abuse of sentence decomposition. A change has been made. “Stark Enterprises” could be called “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.” The substitution here has changed the proper noun, a name, into a common noun, a thing or several things. It’s a bit confusing, but a strict use of sentence decomposition still works. Proper nouns can usually be replaced with “it.” In English, this kind of change happens often together with the pronoun “they.”

Is the congregation in the church? (Singular subject so far.)

No, they are still coming inside. (Switch to plural subject.)

This kind of change is very common, so it helps to know a bit about proper and common nouns first. In English, proper nouns are different from common nouns. Proper nouns denote singular, individual entities, while common nouns denote classes of entities. This can make conjugation difficult in some common but specific cases where context (or capitalization) can change the meaning. “The monkeys are eating my food” denotes members of a class (of either cercopithecoids or platyrrhines), whereas “The Monkees are eating my food” denotes the members of the unique musical band “The Monkees.” Both statements are grammatically correct.

In this case, the proper noun, “The Monkees” inherits the grammatical number (plural) from the common noun. This could be viewed as an exception to the rule that proper nouns take the singular. In this case, though, proper noun status is conferred upon “The Monkees” only by context or capitalization. Correct grammar is context-independent. More specifically,proper nouns generally do not take articles such as “the.” Proper nouns with articles inherit the grammatical number. This is not so much an exception as an irregularity, presumably to avoid the linguistically odd “The Monkees is eating.” Though this grammatically incorrect form conveys information otherwise lost, English tends to avoid relying on conjugation to impart information. (Compare this to German in which “den Kater aas der Hund”can also be written in the order “der Hund aas den Kater” while still meaning “the dog ate the cat.” The case – seldom an issue in English – defines subject and object instead of the word order.) Unfortunately, this causes grammatical decomposition to fail. “The Redskins have taken the field” means the same as “the team has taken the field.”

Otherwise, though, the following sentences are all grammatically incorrect due to a mismatch between subject and verb. “The team are in the shower,” “South Africa win the world cup,” “Roxette are playing at the City Arena tonight,” and “The Beatles is breaking up” (for an example of the irregularity). [I give these examples as some of the most common mistakes I regularly see.] Of course, this being English,there are a few exceptions and special cases. They are rare, though, and usually when singular/plural grammatical mistakes happen it’s because somebody incorrectly thinks of the exception instead of the rule.

The word “people” is something of a special case, as it can mean both the plural of “one person” but also the singular “people” as an ethnic, racial, or ideological group. ( “People” in the latter meaning has the plural “peoples.” The strict plural of “person” is “persons,” which means only a multitude of individuals without the unifying implications of “people.” Likewise, it’s, “one fish, two fish, and many different fishes.”) Titles for people (in the plural sense) inherit this plural grammatical number in the same was as the above example for proper nouns. If you imagine a group of people with particularly angular faces, they may be called “the Square.” (Note the capitalization.) The statement, “the Square join the war” is grammatically correct. Contrast this with, “the Squares join the war,” which loses the connotation of a united people – but is still grammatically correct. These two statements show the difference between “the people join the war” and “some people join the war.”

There are certain, very rare cases where subject-verb disagreement is acceptable. A specific example of this kind of differentiation comes with the word “majority” (or similarly, “minority”).

The majority of secretaries are women. The majority is female.

Strictly speaking, the first sentence is grammatically incorrect; the plural form of majority is “majorities.” At the same time, a quantified statement such as, “Eighty percent of secretaries are women” is strictly correct as “percent” takes the plural. In rare cases where many individuals of a group are the subject of a sentence and differentiated from others in the group the plural form can be used. (This is more common in British English than American English.) In a case where a part of a staff is waiting for the boss, the statement, “the staff are waiting for him to arrive” makes grammatical sense. (The earlier example of the Square as a people fits in well here.) “The staff is” could imply the whole entirety of the staff is waiting, which may be factually incorrect. In many such cases, though, good style would dictate a change such as, “some staff are waiting” or “part of the staff is waiting.”

The question of switching from singular to plural (or back) can now be put into context. The above example with the congregation asks about the congregation as a whole, whereas the answer is about individual members of the congregation. It would be similar to answering the question, “How is your family?” (singular) with, “They are fine.” “They” refers to individual members, not the collective family. Another answer could be, “it is well.” While archaic, this seemingly similar answer means something much different. The family as a whole could be doing well in finances or in health or in politics, even if individual members may be poor, sick, or involved in a scandal.

This is a good example of how grammar can be very important in the meaning of a statement. “My family is suing the record label,” has a specific meaning. So does, “My family members are suing the record label.” However, “My family are suing the record label,” is grammatical nonsense, an ambiguous statement which could mean either preceding sentence. The former means the family as a whole – perhaps an an estate– is suing a company, the latter that individuals are suing. This may not matter much, but it could be a very distinct and important difference if somebody in the family owned the record label, for example.

A less problematic exception can occur in dialogue, where the rules of grammar often take back seat to the rules of diction and parlance. Much as different dialects can pronounce the same written words differently, the grammar of speech can be different from the grammar of written word. Thoughts tend to change a lot faster than sentence fragments are completed. Take for example, “where are they, the crew?” Here, mid-sentence, the subject has changed from plural to singular. In this case, context in unambiguous. The grammatically correct, “where are they, the members of the crew?” or “where is it, the whole of the crew?” is stiff and cumbersome. In dialogue context always fills in quite a bit more than written word (unless deliberately styled differently). It is important to keep this distinction in mind when writing. What may pass in dialogue may well be incorrect (or at least bad style) when written.

In the rare case where logical meaning may allow for exceptions in grammar it’s usually best to follow grammar first and allow context to take care of logical meaning. Better yet, resolve the ambiguity with a better-constructed sentence. Context will not always be available to sort out different meanings. This is more than just an issue of style. The point of both written and spoken word, in any language, is to convey information. Consider a case where grammar plays a large role in meaning. With just the change of singular to plural, the meaning of the following sentences changes greatly. “Eating parrots are prohibited” (probably because they are messy) means something much different from “eating parrots is prohibited” (probably because they are an endangered species).

Much of the power of language is in breaking from traditional rules. “Ain’t no” uses a double-negative to emphasize the negation, not reverse the original negation. “Court sentences drunk driver to death” doesn’t really specify what the drunk driver was sentenced to death for, though the implication is clear. The former of the examples is a common feature of many English dialects. The latter, taken from a headline, is sloppy and misleading – but makes clear how a judicious choice of words can have a big difference. When rules are broken, they should be broken for a good reason. Improper grammar is lazy and sloppy at best, but can make a sentence unreadable or unintelligible – or even downright wrong and incorrect in meaning – at worst. While in many cases context makes a meaning clear and grammar mistakes make no alternate meaning, it’s a very bad habit. In some cases it will matter, and if one is in the habit of using sloppy grammar, all one can ever really use is sloppy grammar – even when it does matter.

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