Monday, March 3, 2008

Don't make mass nouns plural

(from Don Ferguson's Grammar Gremlins column in the Knoxville News Sentinel )

There is a strange tendency by some to pluralize nouns that should not be used in a plural form. Here are a few examples:
  • "Ethics legislations were put on the back burner."
  • "We don't know very much about it, but there are speculations."
  • "Research has shown the potential impacts of long-term radiation."
  • "They were studying the behaviors of the child."

The italicized words are mass nouns -- things that cannot be broken down into separate, countable units and, therefore, should not be used in a plural form.

In truth, this discussion can be a Pandora's box. But we must do the best we can. The rule is covered in Harbrace rule 6a(8): Collective nouns and phrases denoting a fixe quantity take a singluar verb when they refer to the group as a unit and take a plural verb when they refer to individuals or parts of the group.

Singular (regarded as unit):

  • The committee is meeting today.
  • Ten million gallons of oil is a lot of oil.
  • The jury convenes today.
  • The number is very small.

Plural (regarded as individuals or parts):

  • A number were absent.
  • Ten million gallons of oil were spilled.
  • The majority of us are in favor.

The corresponding rule for pronouns is 6b(3): Collective nouns are referred to by singular or plural pronouns, depending on whether the collective noun has a singular or plural sense [as described above].

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