Monday, January 14, 2013

Grammar Manners: Plural or Singular

Since we all love Mondays and we all love Grammar and the minutes of writing, Mondays are hereafter dedicated to things we'd rather leave in the dark. Might as well start the week with a kick in the pants. I'll bring to you common mistakes I think writers should just know. Tips will range from first-grade knowledge of the English language to Master's Degree expertise. 

I recently received this question:
"Do you refer to a band or a crowd (multiple people) as a single entity or multiple entities?"
Answer: A band or a crowd is a single entity, even though it is made up of many entities. So you would say "The crowd is getting rowdy" rather than "The crowd are getting rowdy."

For many verb-subject agreement in number, just read it aloud and you will hear which one to use, like the above crowd example. No English speaking native would make the mistake of saying "The crowd are". In this instance, the subject is clear: "crowd".

But the real trick is deciphering which is the true subject (only then do you get to decide whether the subject is singular or plural).

Consider our sample sentence with "people" instead of "crowd."
"The people are getting rowdy."
Yes, "people" are plural. But if you combine them together:
'The crowd of people is getting rowdy."
Whoa! The true subject here is "crowd", not "people." I could get way more technical, but let's keep it simple, shall we? Because things can get really complicated after that. For example, money is always singular (Two million dollars is a lot of money), "everyone" is always singular (Everyone has more money than me), two separate nouns is singular if they can be considered a unit (Fish and chips is best with beer batter), a singular object followed by a plural modification is always singular (The bear, as well as her new cubs, is in good health).

As long as you know your basic sentence structure (subject, verb, etc) you should be able to identify the subject, and from there whether it is singular or plural. If in doubt, Google it! Or invest in a good Grammar guide. I refer to "When Words Collide" if I don't feel like Googling it. It lives on my desk just above my computer. It also makes for fun reading when I'm bored!

Happy writing!


Unknown said...

I'm pretty sure a cog in my brain broke while reading this. The bear one, when spoken, sounds wrong to me. Not that I doubt the great Vickie. I'd be safer doubting my faulty cogs.

Tobi Summers said...

The one that always gives me trouble is when you have an either/or with both a singular and plural subject. Like, "Either Josh or his parents is/are picking up the dog."

Anonymous said...

Makes sense. I'm having trouble applying it to "If money was no object" vs. "If money were no object". I tend to see the latter, but by your explanation would expect the former to be correct. What do you think?

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