Singular and plural

Are these phrases singular or plural? Row upon row, ship after ship, one or more, more than one (singular), here is/are (a university town, students and professors) -- all from Vallins (1955:15). Likewise: "There is pansies, that's for thoughts" (Ophelia in Hamlet), "there are 10 minutes to go" (formal), "there's 10 minutes left" (colloquial) -- Vallins (1955:15-16).

"A quarter of it is…", "a quarter of them are"-- Vallins (1955:16-17).

"'Each proclaims…his' observes the letter of the law; 'each proclaim…their' is condoned if not entirely accepted, by modern usage" -- Vallins (1955:17).

"Mr Roger Livesey and Miss Ursula Jeans are neither of them ideally cast" -- "The subject is double and the verb (are cast) correctly plural. -- Vallins (1955 p17.

How about this?: "It is in moments like this that Mr Spender, rather than his victims, seems to be the Golden Ass" -- Vallins (1955), p19.

This one always catches me: "Fanny Burney […]is one of the most entertaining writers-down of dialogue who has ever lived." (Vallins, 1995, p20)

David Crystal (1984) points out:

"several nouns have a singular and no plural.

several more have a plural and no singular.

there are others that look singular but are really plural.

and others still that look plural but are really singular."

(p.69 -- the lack of capitals is his usage)

His examples:

of singulars with no regular plurals: gold, silver, music, dirt. He does note "I got two golds", but points out that names of people and places do not appear in the plural (p.69).

Plurals not often met in the singular include: amends, banns, binoculars, glasses, greens (as in "eat your greens"), Hebrides, jeans, oats, outskirts, pants, pliers, premises, pyjamas, remains, scissors, thanks (p.70,71).

Nouns that look singular but are plural include: cattle, gentry, police, vermin (p.71). Many more look plural but are almost exclusively singular: athletics, billiards, gymnastics, news (p.72).

Other nouns can be both: acoustics, dominoes, ethics, mathematics, people, politics, statistics, youth (p.71-2). But what, Crystal asks, about measles? Do we say measles is a cruel disease but measles are horrid? (p.73). It's a puzzle only if you think the same word must be always singular or plural if it means the same thing.

Crystal also notes that "Look at those lovely ducks" would be used by someone in quite different circumstances from "Look at those lovely duck" (a professional, hunter or naturalist). But that won't help you with fish. Will oil harm the fish and will oil harm the fishes are both OK, and it would require quite of bit of head-scratching to find a difference in meaning or association between them. Certainly not enough to make it worth worrying about (p.74).

More seriously, government causes similar problems. Crystal approves: "The government is behind the times" and "the government are sticking together on this issue" but the reverse sounds just as acceptable in the latter example. His (logical) view is that whether you use one or the other depends on whether the emphasis is on the government as a united force or as a collection of individuals. His argument seems to make more sense with regard to orchestra: "The orchestra is good tonight" and "the orchestra have all gone home" does seem (in the second usage) to be more rational (p.76).

How about acoustics? "Acoustics was his line of work. The acoustics in the auditorium were not good" (Bryson 1987:15).

Abbreviations also give trouble. It's ins. but yds, because d is the end of yard but n is not the end of inch (Bryson 1987: 14).

Agenda is a Latin plural but an English singular (Bryson 1987:17).

The worst problem is with data. If you say data is, people will think you are ignorant. If you say data are, you can sound pedantic. Crystal (p.77) advises: "What sort of linguistic image of yourself do you want to convey?" [if you are not sure] avoid the issue, and use a different term" (p.79). It's advice that's good for many English problems.

Difficult to do though with "media". I can only give you a collection of prescriptions, starting with the one I favour: "In the later 20c, the usage has been increasingly perceived independently of the singular medium, and is often construed with a singular verb, like data." -- McArthur (1992:647). Microsoft tells its writers: "Follow conservative practice and use medium, not media, as a singular subject" (Microsoft 1995:136).

Roy H. Copperud, in the most useful book on American usage, declares: "Medias is incorrect, and so is media used as a singular [...] this is the view of four critics and American Heritage. Evans, however, finds medias acceptable. Flesch and Webster recognize media as a singular but Random House does not; none recognizes medias. Medias is a standard alternative plural form though usually applied in connection with spiritualism" [Nice one, Roy] -- Copperud (1980:240).

So my only comment has to be: who says so? Fowler and Gowers record that chickenpox and smallpox were originally plural (1965:456). They also record "sons-in-law" but "knock-outs" through their rule is to attach the plural -s to the noun in a compound or the significant noun (1965:456). Likewise, they distinguish between "two gin-and-tonics" and "two gins-and-French" (ibid), but note several problems with deciding on plurals that have "General" in their compound forms such as "Attorney General", "Major General", "Governor General" and "Postmaster General". Try to guess which is right.

They also find it hard to lay down the law about "court martials" and "poet laureates" compared to the more correct "courts martial" and "poets laureate" (my suggestion would be to hyphenate the first form if you feel you need to make a choice).