Challenging Nouns: Plurals That Seem Singular and Collective or Group Nouns
In formal scholarly writing, agreement should always be maintained between nouns and the verbs used with them. This is usually straightforward: singular nouns should be used with the singular forms of verbs, as in ‘the scholar investigates’ and ‘the child plays,’ while plural nouns must be used with the plural forms of verbs, as in ‘the scholars investigate’ and ‘the children play.’ However, there are certain nouns in the English language that present special challenges when it comes to agreement.
Plural nouns that seem to be singular nouns are a case in point. For example, ‘data,’ ‘media’ and ‘criteria’ are technically plural and should therefore be used with the plural forms of verbs, so ‘the criteria were’ and ‘the data show’ are correct. ‘Data’ is a little more complicated since it can also be used as a collective noun with the singular forms of verbs (‘the data shows’ or ‘the data reveals’). A slight difference in meaning might be indicated, with ‘data’ treated as a plural referring to individual facts, items and statistics, whereas ‘data’ as a singular refers to a body of facts. This distinction is rarely observed, however, and most authors tend to use the noun with exclusively singular or exclusively plural verbs. This is a sound policy, with the key point being to maintain consistency throughout a document.
With collective nouns in general, it is best if each noun is consistently treated as either a singular or a plural within a piece of writing. This can be rather tricky because such nouns are used as both singulars and plurals in casual conversation, so there is a tendency to be inconsistent. For instance, in ‘The society was founded in 1995; since then, they have grown rapidly,’ ‘they have’ in the second part of the sentence should actually be ‘it has’ to agree with the singular ‘society’ and the verb ‘was’ in the first part. Sometimes the decision to use a singular or plural verb with a collective noun can depend (as suggested with regard to ‘data’ above) on whether the noun refers to the group as a unit (singular) or to its members as individuals (plural). At other times the use of British or American English may make a difference. In American English, when the group is considered as a unit, a singular verb is usually used (‘Our team is playing very poorly this year’), but in British English, collective nouns tend to use plural verbs (‘Our team are playing very poorly this year’).
The collective nouns ‘couple’ and ‘pair’ are usually used as plurals when they refer to people, as in ‘The couple ride their bicycles to work,’ but collective nouns of quantity such as ‘number,’ ‘percentage’ and ‘proportion’ tend to take a singular verb when a definite article precedes the noun and a plural verb when an indefinite article precedes the noun. This means that ‘The proportion of customers with home phones is decreasing’ is correct, but so, too, is ‘A large proportion of customers are giving up their home phones in favour of mobile phones.’ The lesson here is to pay very close attention to each and every instance of such nouns in your writing.
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