Basics of writingGrammar

Nouns: tricky plurals and verb agreements

From Rick:

In a recent post, I talked about some of the style changes in the latest edition (17th) of the Chicago Manual of Style:


In this post I’m going to talk about some problems with figuring out verb agreement with certain types of nouns and pronouns. I’m sure that most of you have no problems in this regard, but as writers we sometimes run across a situation where you have to stop and think about you should us the singular or plural verb with what we call “mass nouns.” I’ll explain in a moment, but consider these:

Do we say “the jury was deadlocked” or “the jury were deadlocked”? Do we say “one pant leg was ripped” or “one pants leg was ripped”?

I realize that some of you—hopefully most of you—do already know this stuff, maybe not in technical terms, but you know it. Even so, I’ll bet that most of you will find something in here that you were not aware of. My goal is to make you all better writers, and sometimes a little review doesn’t hurt. It might point out a mistake you weren’t aware you were making.

As an editor, I find myself hypercritical of advertisements on TV, radio, on signs, and ad copy in general. One has to wonder about the competence of the copy editors at some of these ad agencies when we do see blatant mistakes. For small companies, it’s possible that someone in the company wrote the ad rather than paying an outside agency. Granted, typos and grammar errors probably won’t affect our decision to purchase from a car dealer or to hire a contractor, but
if the advertisement is for something where spelling and grammar matter, then that calls into question the quality of the work we’re considering paying for.

It doesn’t make a good impression if an author’s website is laden with spelling and grammatical errors. Even if the author uses an editor for his or her writing, the website should also be reasonably free of errors. I admit that I make errors on my blog, usually caused by rushing to finish the blog. Since I’m also an editor, I should really be more careful.

On the other hand, if the website is for a publishing professional selling services to authors, glaring grammatical and spelling errors will leave a poor impression.

But let’s delve into the purpose of this post. Consider the following ad copy that presents no problems:

—ABC Paving Company offers the best prices for driveway sealing.
—ABC Plumbing won’t let you down. Call them for prompt service.
(Even though the company name is singular, you wouldn’t say call “Call it…” If you didn’t like “them,” you could say “Call us…”)

When the company name includes the names of more than one person or when one word in the name is a plural, things get tricky. In the examples below I’ve shown two verb choices you might see, but in all cases the company name is a singular entity. and should use the singular verb (the first one of the pair).

—Smith and Jones Exterminators has a seasonal guarantee on all work.

—ABC Pavers is the best for driveway sealing.

—XYZ Roofing Contractors is equipped to handle all your roofing problems.

—Jackson and Sons is there to help with all your appliance repairs.

—The legal team at Smith, Jones, and Doe is your best choice for personal injury attorneys.

—Smith, Jones, and Doe is your best choice for personal injury attorneys.

—Pride Kitchens is my choice for kitchen remodels.

Now, how many of you think that “are” (or “have” in the first example) should be used in place of “is” (has) in some or all of these?

I’ve seen the plural verb used with the presumed intent of indicating that the company consists of a team of individuals, but it’s incorrect usage, and any competent advertising professional should know that. We might consider “ABC Roofers are your roofing specialists” as acceptable, but at best it’s marginal, and it should be cast in the singular: “ABC Roofers is your roofing specialist.” Still, if we want to keep things less formal, we can forgive the plural variation.


With this introduction in mind, let’s look at the grammar and terminology of nouns for a better understanding.

COMMON NOUNS that refer to the nonspecific name of something: (book, dictionary, thesaurus, computer, table, street, building, lettuce, beef).

PROPER NOUNS that refer to a specific something, a title, or a proper name: Webster’s dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, Mac computer, Main Street, a Sheraton hotel. The parts of a proper name may or may not all be capitalized depending on the usage.

—I stayed at a Sheraton hotel (tells which hotel as opposed to) I stayed at the Sheraton Hotel (which treats the entire business name as a proper noun).

Most common nouns and proper nouns don’t (or shouldn’t) present problems with verb agreement because they refer to ONE person, place or thing regardless of the seeming plurality in the name: “Niagara Falls is located between New York and Canada.”

But singular and plural are not absolute with such names:

The Rocky Mountains are majestic. (refers to them as parts of a group)

The Rocky Mountains is a mountain range in the western United States. (refers to them collectively as a single unit and it would be awkward to say “are a mountain range”)


Nouns can be count nouns or mass nouns.

COUNT NOUNS name things that can be counted (animal, plant, house, street, car) and can be subdivided into three categories:

CONCRETE NOUNS—things that you can perceive with your senses (pencil, heat, noise)

ABSTRACT NOUNS—things you cannot perceive with the senses (sorrow, smell, taste, anticipation)

COLLECTIVE NOUNS—concrete nouns that refer to a group or collection of something (crowd, flock, herd)

Most of us have no problems with count nouns in terms of plural or agreement, although collective nouns may give us pause to think. Which of the sentences below is correct?

—A flock of geese were flying overhead
—A flock of geese was flying overhead.

Both are acceptable. When referring to the flock as a single entity, use “was,” but if you wish to emphasize the individuality of the geese in the flock, use “were.”

Other examples of such usage occur with collective nouns like “jury” and “committee.” As with “flock,” use the singular verb form when referring to the group as a whole, but the plural verb when separating them: “The jury were unable to reach a decision on the defendant’s guilt.”

Of course, if you feel uncomfortable with such usage or aren’t sure, then simply recast the sentence: “The members of the jury were unable to reach a decision…”

MASS NOUNS name things that are uncountable or collective (history, internet, oxygen, weather, lunch). Note that here “history” when refers to the subject and “lunch” when it refers to a time of day or the meal are both mass nouns, but they can also be count nouns. We can talk about “histories” when referring to multiple books about historical persons and events and use “lunches” when serving individual meals or referring to multiple events (She reserved the cafe for three lunches next week.)

Some nouns, therefore, can be both a mass noun and a count noun depending on its usage in a given sentence.

The main difference between mass nouns and collective nouns is that mass nouns rarely take an indefinite article (a, an). Example of mass nouns: music, physics, luggage. You can say “the music” but not “a music.” You would say “a piece of luggage” not “a luggage.”

Mass nouns can be singular or plural, but any given mass noun is rarely both.

Some singular mass nouns: economics, measles, politics, ethics, news.

Some plural mass nouns: clothes, scissors, manners, eyeglasses, furniture, scissors, pants.

We wouldn’t say “Politics are confusing” or “The pants is in the closet.”

But the English language presents a lot of challenges when it comes to certain plurals and mass nouns. Those singular mass nouns I listed above are plural in form but singular in use. The CMOS points out that a plural word used as a single word takes a singular verb: “Mice” is the plural of “mouse.”

Then we have the somewhat contested words “media” and “data.” Both of these are plural forms (the singular forms being “medium” and “datum”). The general trend is to treat the plural forms as singular nouns, but in the sciences, “data” is always treated as a plural (“The data are compelling”).

When referring to the news media, we almost never hear the singular used, but we may use “media” as a plural noun when we wish to stress the plurality of various news organizations: “The media were not kind to the young candidate.” You’ll also hear the singular “medium” used in the arts: “That artist works in several media but prefers charcoal as his primary medium.”

Geographical names often keep us on our toes, as we saw with “Rocky Mountains.” We can’t rely on the “s” as the end of the place name to tell us. The general rule is that a plural geographical name is treated as a singular when it refers to a single entity (The United States is a relatively young nation), but there are exceptions that take the plural verb: the Alps, the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes (in New York State).

The Alps are beautiful
The Great Lakes were formed by glaciers (and so were the Finger Lakes).

Where I see a lot of writers and speakers making mistakes is with company names, as I pointed out earlier:

General Motors is…
Southwest Airlines is…

But the CMOS points out that British English offers some exceptions when a singular noun for an organization refers to the individuals in it:

Manchester United have won the FIFA cup.
England are now leading in the World Cup standings.

Finally, we have some nouns (mainly mass nouns) that have only a singular form (furniture, spaghetti, wheat) but some exist only as plurals (oats, scissors, pants, slacks).

However, you will sometimes see clothing catalogs and ads refer to “pant leg” instead of “pants leg.” “Pant” is considered an acceptable variant, but I recommend not using it in your writing except in dialogue (where lots of things are permissible).

Then we have some nouns that don’t look plural in form but are (police, vermin).

Finally, there’s one of my favorites: person, people, peoples. “Person” has two plurals: “persons” and “people.” But “people” is also a singular word when referring to a nationality or race and in this meaning has the plural “peoples” (the peoples of the world).

I think we’ve done enough damage with nouns here. I do hope that most of this wasn’t new to you and merely provided a refresher of the complexities of English.

In a future post I’ll tackle pronouns. That’s where things can get a bit more complicated.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.