Wordwatch Towers

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

Three-fifths – singular or plural?

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This post is dedicated to the unknown surfer who landed on my blog after typing the following search term into their browser:

Three fifths, singular or plural?

An excellent question, and here’s the answer:

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 when referring to fractions. For example, the following just sounds horrible:

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

‘Each’, ‘either’, ‘a number of’, and ‘the number of’ — singular or plural?

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6 Responses

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  1. “This post is dedicated to the unknown surfer who landed on my blog after typing the following search term into their browser.”

    If I had written this line I would have used ‘his/her browser’. So explain please so that I do not make the error in future.

  2. Hi, Vikas — how interesting that you should have picked up on that! Here is a post I have planned which explains all:

    Everyone did their best to write good English

    Some strict grammarians would say this heading is wrong and should read:

    Everyone did his best to write good English.

    But this is old-fashioned tosh. There is no excuse for writing sentences using ‘he’, when the ‘he’ might be a ‘her’.

    Some well-meaning writers who are doing their best to be inclusive use terms such as ‘s/he’, or ‘he/she’, or ‘his or her’ (usually in the traditional male first, female second order). While there is nothing wrong with this, the result isn’t pretty on the page and is distracting to the reader.

    The solution is simple – and grammatically correct. ‘They’ (and ‘their’) can be used to refer to a single person who might be female or male. Various dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, say quite clearly that ‘they’ can be used to mean ‘he’ or ‘she’.


    19/12/2009 at 4:48 pm

  3. Hmm, great solution! Btw, I sometimes use ‘(S)he’ or ‘(s)he’.

    You can sometimes make a full post out of my query instead of answering in the comment (it will also mean more content on mail pages of blog).

    • Thanks, Vikas — and for your advice.


      19/12/2009 at 5:03 pm

  4. Three -fifths of money has/have already been spend. Which is correct, has or have.


    29/09/2016 at 5:52 am

    • Hi – the word ‘money’ is treated as singular, so the correct way of saying this is:

      Three-fifths of the money has already been spent.


      29/09/2016 at 6:42 am

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