Plural But Singular in Construction

By Mark Nichol

In the dictionary, when you’re looking up a noun that ends in s, you’re apt to find a notation like this: “noun plural but singular in construction.” What does that mean?

This description refers to words like news that appear to be plural but take a singular verb (hence the word construction, meaning “sentence structure,” not “appearance”). One category of words plural in appearance but singular in use is that of intellectual pursuits and their associated academic disciplines: For mathematics, physics, and the like, we use a singular verb: “Mathematics is difficult for him”; “The physics is staggeringly complex.” However, similar terms may use singular or plural verbs depending on the sense: “Statistics is not my favorite subject”; “The statistics are valid.”

In other contexts, usage varies. Gymnastics is treated singularly (“Gymnastics is an Olympic sport”), but calisthenics takes a plural verb (“Calisthenics are boring”). Both words refer to a routine of physical activities, but noun-verb agreement is inconsistent.

Some words that are plural but refer to a unified pair of objects, such as (eye)glasses, pants, and scissors, are nevertheless associated with plural verbs: “My glasses are missing”; “These pants have gotten too tight”; “The scissors are dull.”

Words in several other categories are categorical exceptions: Proper names, composition titles, and words used as words are always singular, even if they are plural in form:

Acme and Sons is a highly rated company.

Spats is a downtown bar.

Demons is a terrible movie.

Shades is a best-selling novel.

Hits is an informal word meaning “search returns.”

Aussies is a nickname for Australians.

A few words appear to be plural but are in fact taken directly from other languages in which s at the end of a word does not denote a plural form. For example, biceps (from Latin) is singular, though many people refer to the muscle in the front of one upper arm as a bicep, and kudo (from Greek) is widely employed as the singular form of kudos — meaning “praise” or “prestige” — though the latter form is singular. (Bicep and kudo are back-formations — linguistic innovations of varying legitimacy — but are not advisable in formal writing.)

Rarely, you’ll see a word that is plural in both appearance and usage, though the literal meaning of the word is singular. For example, whereabouts means “location,” but one writes that a person’s whereabouts are unknown (even though a person can be in only one location at once).

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14 Responses to “Plural But Singular in Construction”

  • Matt Gaffney

    What about “data”? Are the data correct or is the data correct?

  • Ken

    It’s amazing that anyone not raised in an English-speaking country could ever achieve fluency in our language. But somehow they do.

  • Nancy

    Thanks, Mark. I teach English to Arabic speakers. Arabic has both masculine and feminine nouns some of which change completely when pluralized with no system whatever. Still, our “s” totally confuses them. (Especially since regular 3rd person singular verbs end in “s”.) Very informative and well-written piece.

  • Mark Nichol

    Matt:

    If you’re a nerd, write “The data are correct.” But most human beings prefer “The data is correct.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “…calisthenics takes a plural verb (“Calisthenics are boring”). Both words refer to a routine of physical activities, but noun-verb agreement is inconsistent.”

    A common problem among many people, especially those studying English as their second or third language, is that they expect English to be consistent about such things – but it is NOT. They have trouble coping with a language that is a hybrid of Anglo-Saxon-Jute and Norman French — and with elements of Danish, Latin, Greek, and Medieval French stirred in. However, I have found that people whose native language is some variety of Chinese usually do well at reading, writing, and understanding English. (Speaking it is a very different problem.)

    Then, there are the words that have been adopted from Arabic, Dutch, modern French**, modern German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Yiddish, etc.

    **From modern French: a significant set of words in automotive and aviation technology, including chauffeur, garage, fuselage, empennage, nacelle, and aerlion. Usually, only people who are conversant in aviation know what an empennage is, but that is a very important item, especially when the empennage of your aircraft fall off!

  • Dale A. Wood

    In modern English, and especially in North American English, “data” is usually treated as a collective noun, and as in the case of all collective nouns, it is singular.
    Therefore, do not make snide remarks about anyone’s being a “nerd”. The main users of “the data are” are BRITISH, but they say such abominations as “the crew are”, “the team are”, “the U.S. are”, and “the staff are”.

    Note that I heard a well-known correspondant speaking on the “60 Minutes” TV program in the U.S. She is from South Africa and she has a distinct South African accent, but she said “the crew is”, just as it should be. “Crew” is a collective noun. Actually, her grammar is American all the way, with a few exceptions.

    By the way, “The President’s staff IS collecting the data, which IS difficult to find…”

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Correction: when the empennage of your aircraft falls off!

    I hope that you would be wearing your parachute then.

    On this Web site, there is a distinct tendancy for it to ignore certain keystrokes, even when they were clearly typed.
    There is nothing wrong with my keyboard because it works fine with other Web sites.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Getting back to mechanical things in technology. I read that the French Academy finally decided to accept “bulldozer” from English.

    However, the Academy ruled that it should be pronounced as “bull-DOZ-ie-aa”, with four syllables instead of the three syllables in English.

    I also read that the members of the Academy were arguing on whether another word should be “la microchip” or “le microchip”.

    I think that in German it is “das Microchip” (neuter), but German has a neuter gender quite unlike French, which only has masculine and feminine. I am so happy that in English we do not have to worry about such things at all. “The microchip”.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Some people might be surprised to find words of Arabic origin in English, but they are here. Most of them start with “al” because when the Arabic works were being translated into Latin or Spanish, the aricle “al” = “the” got incorporated into the word.

    These words include algebra, algorithm, alcohol, alchemy, Algol, Almagest, and Alhambra. There are probably more.
    “Algol” is the name of a variable star that is visibly in the northen constellation of Cetus, the whale. In Arabic, that word means “the ghoul” because early stargazers were astonished to find a star that varied in its brightness. There is also a rather-old computer-programming language named ALGOL. Naturally, it is not used very much anymore.
    In Arabic, the word “almagest” means “the greatest”, and it was used to describe a book of mathematics from the medieval Arabs that was considered to be the most outstanding one. It was written by a mathematician named Al Jeber, and that name is the source of the word “algebra”. Al Jeber was one of the first mathematicians to use algebra and to write about it.
    Believe it or not, the methods of algebra were unknown to the Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. They used earlier, more primitive methods to solve problems.
    D.A.W.

  • Sally

    @ D.A.W.

    I have to presume that you’re setting us up (or as we say “pulling our legs”), since checking any dictionary would have told you that ‘algebra’ comes from Arabic “al jebr / ğabr = reunification.”

  • Jon

    @D.A.W. Let’s not open the very messy can of worms regarding perceived ‘abominations’ in British English usage when viewed from an American English perspective… 🙂

  • Nelida K.

    Other such terms: Economics, lyrics, ergonomics, hysterics.
    @D.A.W: I assume you meant to write “tendency” (i/o “tendancy”).

  • Rhys Lucca Adelay

    @Dale A. Wood

    I am lead to believe that words such as “police”, “team” etc. can be used as both a plural and a singular depending on writer’s intention, i.e. whether they refer to either the whole or the individual parts that comprise the whole.

  • Sam Leizerman

    “…collecting the data, which IS difficult to find…” is not proper English. While datum is the singular form and damn near no one ever uses it, that does not change the fact that data is plural and refers to a set of discrete measurements. Furthermore, staff is, in no way, plural. Just because someone is comprised of smaller parts or units does not make it plural. An organ is not a plural word that is treated as singular due to being comprised of several tissues and even more cells. If a word has a distinct plural form (Staffs or organs), then the word in question is singular (excluding some very fishy exceptions, for which data is not a part .)

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