Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Singular or plural?

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Korean tea kettle over hot coal

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Singular words and phrases

No, I don’t mean remarkable or extraordinary words. I mean words and phrases that are singular. In other words, should we say: ‘Either the pot or the kettle is black’ or ‘Either the pot or the kettle are black?’

I’m talking about words like:

Either

Neither

 Or

Each

(See information about ‘none’ at the end of this post.)

And the phrases:

The number of

A number of

One of the

Three fifths, two thirds etc

 

Either

 Either is singular which means it is correct to write:

 Either the pot or the kettle is black.

 

Neither

Neither is singular which means it is correct to write:

Neither the pot nor the kettle is black.

 

Either and neither: a slight complication

Look at this sentence:

 Neither the doctors nor the nurses were prepared to go on strike.

Because ‘doctors’ is plural and ‘nurses’ is plural this sentence is correct – you wouldn’t write:

Neither the doctors nor the nurses was prepared to go on strike.

Similarly:

Either the doctors or the nurses were there throughout the day.

You wouldn’t write:

 Either the doctors or the nurses was there throughout the day.

This slight complication is not too daunting, as you can easily ‘hear’ what’s right and what’s wrong.

 

 Or

 Or is singular. Look at the following incorrect sentences:

Beef or pork are fine for the main course.

 I have told the interior designer that linen or cotton are acceptable.  

These should be:

Beef or pork is fine for the main course.

 I have told the interior designer that linen or cotton is acceptable.

 

Each

Each is singular. For example:

Each of the patients was seen separately.

Not ‘were seen separately’ 

Each of the reports was read in turn.

Not ‘were read in turn’ 

 

The number of

The number of is singular. For example:

The number of schools with good results has dropped.

The number of adults who cannot read is gradually falling.

 

A number of

A number of is always plural, for example:

A number of schools have made improvements this year.

A number of adults have decided to learn to read.

 

One of the…

This phrase often causes confusion. For example, look at this incorrect sentence:

Mr Smith is one of the committee members who agrees with the proposals.

This should be:

Mr Smith is one of the committee members who agree with the proposals.

You can check this by taking out the first part of the sentence:

…the committee members who agree with the proposals.

You would not write:

 …the committee members who agrees with the proposals.

 

Fractions

Look at these two correct sentences:

Three-fifths of the people are happy to take part in the survey.

Three-fifths of the work is already done.

The first is correct because ‘people’ is plural.

The second is correct because ‘work’ is singular.

You can usually trust your ears to tell you if the sentence is correct. For example, the following just sounds horrible:

Three-fifths of the people is happy to take part in the survey.

 

None

Is none singular or plural? Many reference works will tell you that it is definitely singular. But others say it’s OK to make it plural if making it singular sounds wrong or really pretentious. Some assert that it is a shortened form of ‘not one’ and therefore singular, while others say it can be short for ‘not one’ or ‘not any’ – so both singular and plural. See what Oxford Dictionaries has to say on this.

See discussion in ‘Travellers and Gypsies’

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4 Responses

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  1. hello there.
    I was wondering whether it is correct or not to say “one number of” instead of “a number of”.
    I saw it in the top notch series and I’m not sure about it. thanks for your help.

    mario martinez

    25/11/2009 at 4:08 am

    • Hi, Mario — thanks for your interesting question. Just at the moment, I cannot think of any examples where the phrase ‘one number of’ would be used instead of ‘a number of’. Do you have any examples that you have seen? If you have, I would be happy to take a look. Best wishes and kind regards.

      Deborah

      25/11/2009 at 3:41 pm

  2. One of the…

    This phrase often causes confusion. For example, look at this incorrect sentence:

    Mr Smith is one of the committee members who agrees with the proposals.×

    This should be:

    Mr Smith is one of the committee members who agree with the proposals.

    You can check this by taking out the first part of the sentence:

    …the committee members who agree with the proposals.

    You would not write:

    …the committee members who agrees with the proposals.

    This one is confusing me, because the incorrect version you stated is wrong sounds right to me whilst the correct one sounds wrong.

    But when the first half of the sentence is taken out, the first example sounds right and the second one wrong.

    Also, could it not be written as: “Mr Smith is one of the committee members that agrees with the proposals.”

    Aky

    13/05/2011 at 8:53 pm

    • Hi, Aky — if you are confused about this you are in very good company; even people who write about how to write well can get this one wrong. Plus, it’s always more difficult when things that are wrong sound right (as in this case).

      It’s perhaps easier to see why the correct version is correct by slightly rearranging the sentence:

      Of the committee members who agree with the proposals, Mr Smith is one.

      ‘That’ can be used instead of ‘who’ ( ‘that’ has been used to make reference to people since at least the eleventh century). However, your substitution would not change the rule that applies here.

      Deborah

      14/05/2011 at 5:42 pm


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