Going, going, gone: the vanishing plural

In recent years, the U.S. print and broadcast media have been lamenting that Americans are losing their grasp of the plural. The same can be said for Canadians. The word fewer, for instance, has all but disappeared from common usage.  Even talking heads on CBC radio and television cheerfully expound on how “less people than ever have the stamina to finish a novel.”

Kay Bock, a leading U.S. psycholinguist, has researched the plurals of nouns and uncovered a growing confusion about how to use them. Classical grammar rules dictate that a subject should agree with a verb. In other words, if a subject is singular, the verb follows suit, and vice versa. Apparently this concept eludes the Android generation’s grasp. What people have taken to doing, Bock has found, is match the verb to the noun closest to it, regardless of its function in the sentence. Instead of the correct “the problem of illiterate media pundits has been growing,” they say “the problem of illiterate media pundits have been growing,” because “pundits” is the last word they uttered before having to decide on a verb.

And don’t get me started on Latin and Greek plurals. How many people on the planet still know that media and data are the plural forms of medium and datum? Not many in the Android generation, I’ll bet. Never trust someone under thirty, I’ve always said (well, since I turned thirty, at any rate; before that I lamented having missed Woodstock).

Some of my editors – the ones nearest and dearest to my heart – still insist on respecting the Latin origins of these words. I haven’t asked them how old they are, but I can tell from their world-weary voices that they saw the far side of thirty long before Google self-driving cars appeared on the scene.

As far as I can tell, even fewer people realize that Greek-derived words such as criteria and phenomena are plurals. To my ears, the correct singular forms of these words – criterion and phenomenon –  call up the majesty of ancient Greek and the glory of Hellenic civilization, and I’m mighty sorry to see them go. I imagine there isn’t (aren’t?) an abundance of us dead language purists left. In a hundred years we’ll be dead ourselves, and future generations will be free to jettison all pesky plurals from our sinking English ship. If they aren’t speaking in grunts by then.

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10 Responses to Going, going, gone: the vanishing plural

  1. Jackson Smylie says:

    Very true, it’s sad to see the plurals go. I was recently assigned to write “a topoi” in philosophy class, and needless to say the whole concept of Greek plurals was lost on the teacher.

  2. Val. says:

    I’m also quite frustrated with odd usage of singular and plural words. Hearing about “the death of 3 American troops”, where the intention is to report that 3 soldiers have died, is very jarring.

    I find the Brits are in on the singular/plural issue. They often use a plural verb with a collective noun or with a singular noun describing an organization or group, e.g., “The W.H.O. are meeting to….”

    • Funny you should mention troops. I also find this use very jarring. Whenever I encounter it in print I find myself thinking, “If 300 troops means 300 individual soldiers, how come we never hear about one troop?”

      • I’ve read the term “troop” as a singular in a historical context (e.g., “A troop of soldiers”) but the use of the plural is far more common and pretty much exclusive in contemporary English.

  3. icelandpenny says:

    Bravo! One observation — Your first e.g., though plurals are involved, is really about the lost distinction between countable plurals and uncountable ones. Fewer people (you can count people) have the stamina to finish novels, because they have less patience (not countable)… A large amount of sugar, but a large number of sugar cubes… And so on.

  4. Plurals is going going gone? I are confused. 😉

  5. Pingback: English Plurals « Serendipity

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