Singular Plural Rules

   by: Professor Sharon Delmendo       Close Window    Print Page

Introduction to Singular/Plural Inconsistency

Everything within a sentence should be either singular or plural. For example, "Everyone has their own idea of the American Dream" should either be "Everyone has his or her own idea of the American Dream" or "People all have their own ideas about the American Dream." But you canít have "everyone" having "their" idea. It generally doesnít matter whether you choose to make sentences singular or plural; just choose one and stick with it, both within sentences and between sentences (i.e., throughout the paragraph). If you don't understand the example that was just shown here is a hint: plural subjects (nouns) must agree with plural verbs. Also, singular subjects must agree with singular verbs. This section could have been titled subject/verb agreement.

Singular/Plural Inconsistency generally arises because of the problem of gender-specific pronouns. For example, people know, if they think about it, that "everyone" has his or her own idea, but it sounds wordy to say it that way, so people switch to plural because "they" is gender-neutral (i.e., it can refer to men, women, or a mix of both). We do it in verbal conversation all the time, but when youíre writing, you need to observe the rules of formal writing. So if "Everyone has his or her own idea" sounds wordy to you, thatís fine; choose plural and go with "People all have their own ideas."

Note that "People all have their own ideas about the American Dream." Different people have different ideas; they donít all have one idea about something. But plural people can share one thing; a husband and wife can have "a life," if you mean the life they live together, but if youíre talking about their individual lives, then you would have to say so. For example:
    My grandmother and grandfather had a long and happy life in Desert Hot Springs, California. {talks about the life they shared}
    My grandmother and grandfather devoted their lives to the care of their family. {My grandmother and grandfather had separate lives Ė my grandfather passed away several years ago but my grandmother is still living Ė and each devoted his or her life to the care of the family they had together}

Plurals of Nouns:

  1. Add an "s" to form the plural of most nouns.

  2. If the word ends in any of the following hissing sounds: s, z, x, ch, or sh, add an "es" to form the plural.

  3. If the word ends in a vowel plus "y", add "s".

  4. If the word ends in a consonant "y", change the "y" into an "ie" and add "s".

  5. If the word ends in "is" change the "is" to "es".

  6. A few words that end in "fe" or "f" have plurals formed by "ves".

  7. Words that end in "o" can often have two plural forms, but some can only have one plural form. Consider the following guidelines:

  8. The plurals of numbers, single capital letters, or acronyms take a single "s" with no apostrophe:

Subject and Noun Agreement:

  1. When two or more nouns or pronouns that are connected by and are the subject of a sentence, use a plural verb.
  2. Because they are connected by and they are considered as a group of things, and the verb must reflect the plurality of the group.

  3. When two or more nouns or pronouns that are connected by or or nor are the subject of a sentence, use a singular verb.
  4. Because they are connected by or or nor they are considered separately, and the verb must reflect that uniqueness (singularity).

  5. Compound subjects (more than one noun) are tricky. When there is both a singular noun and a plural noun forming the compound, the verb form must agree with the noun that is closest.
  6. Note than the noun closest to the verb, woman, is singular so the verb, plays, must agree as it would if there were only woman as the subject.

    We can also turn that around: Again, note the noun closest to the verb.

  7. Phrases that are inserted between the subject and the verb can cause confusion. Consider the sentence without the phrase to clarify the proper usage.
  8. Yes,  jars is a plural noun but the phrase specifies one of the jars. Note that if the sentence were structured so as to compound the subjects, then the rule above would apply.
  9. Be careful with contractions.
  10. Don't is a contraction of do not. It should be used with a plural subject. Doesnít is a contraction of does not. It should be used with a singular subject. EXCEPTION: When using the pronouns I or you, the contraction donít is the proper form.
  11. Some words and phrases are singular and require a singular verb. They are:
  12.        anybody anyone each each one
           either neither everyone nobody
           no one somebody someone

  13. There are nouns that have an "s" on the end that are, nevertheless, singular. Think about what they are. Measles is a disease. It is news, and there are no such things as newses (sic). These nouns require a singular verb. Some examples are:
  14.        civics mathematics physics stasis
           measles news tuberculosis basis
    Example: Mathematics is necessary for that major.

    SPECIAL CASE: When referring to dollars as things, it requires a plural verb. When referring to an amount of money in dollars, it requires a singular verb.

  15. There are some nouns that refer to things that have two or more parts to them and the subject is, therefore, plural. Again, think about what they are and the two or more parts that theyíre made of.
  16.        pliers tweezers shears trousers
           pants slacks shoes lips
           ears feet sides margins

  17. When a sentence begins with there is or there are the subject is following the verb. The verb must then agree with the following subject. In other words, there is not the subject. In the following examples the subject is in italics and the verb is underlined.

  18. Some nouns refer to a collection or group but are considered singular. Family is a good example. A family has more than one member by definition but is a recognizable entity in itself, and is therefore considered singular.
  19.        family team inventory group
           set class committee membership

    EXCEPTION: When referring to a portion or distinct members of the group the plural verb is used.

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