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The singular complexity of plurals - Johnny Grimond

Blog | By Johnny Grimond | By Johnny Grimond | Jan 04, 2023

Johnny Grimond demonstrates how the pronoun revolution makes the already idiosyncratic english language even more complex

might not think it possible to get worked up about plurals. Yet a surprising number of people, when confronted by a plural, get their knickers in a twist.

The sentence you're just read is an example of the strange ways English treats words that relate to several and those that relate to one. First why does 'kickers' have an s at the end and take the plural? Yes, knickers come in pairs, like trousers, shorts, pants and tights, but only grammatically: each pair is a single piece of clothing, in the same way that a jacket, shirt, blouse or bra is single – though grammatically singular.

In the clothing department, only garments worn below the waist are treated as plural in this way – and, oddly, the only sub-waistline garments that are genuine pairs, such as shoes, socks and stockings, come in both plural and singular.

And then, if we go back to the opening sentence, what about ‘a surprising number of people … get’? Why isn’t it ‘a surprising number of people … gets’? After all, ‘the number’ – whether of twisted knickers or of anything else – generally takes the singular.

It’s tempting to think we’re in the realm of collective nouns here, but we’re not. Collective nouns, words like ‘government’, ‘crowd’ and ‘team’, look singular but describe groups – they used to be called nouns of multitude – and are often treated as plural.

That practice seems to be waning, perhaps because Americans don’t care for it. The ‘government’, for example, is usually singular for Americans, whereas the British tend to make it plural.

Americans also say ‘the staff is on strike’ and ‘a married couple doesn’t pay inheritance tax unless its estate is over $10.9 million’. It’s all a matter of idiom – and idioms change.

The biggest change on both sides of the Atlantic may now be the adoption of ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’, and of ‘their’ in place of ‘his’ or ‘her’. This has brought countless sentences such as ‘Anyone who ever crosses their fingers for luck has had a taste of obsessive-compulsive disorder,’ and even ‘No ambitious man should grow a beard if they want to be taken seriously.’

This change may turn out to be no more difficult than the junking of the second-person singular, with its associated ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s. That has saved modern English-speakers all the anguished decision-making of, say, the French when uncertain whether to tutoyer or not.

Still, things aren’t getting easier. The Times recently reported that ‘BBC staff have been told to use non-binary pronouns when addressing gender-fluid or transgender employees to ensure that the corporation does not develop a “heteronormative culture”. The policy means that BBC workers will be encouraged to refer to non-binary colleagues as “they” or “them”, rather than “he” or “she”.’ Unfortunately, the gender-neutral heteronormative culture already has me tied up.

On reading recently that ‘an artist who invited the public to deface her portrait of Boris Johnson is locked in a £100,000 legal row with a neighbour over the right to park in their front garden’, I was baffled. Who owned the garden? Was it the artist? Or the neighbour? It turned out to belong to them both.

The British love the plural. We’re not so good at ‘criterion’ and ‘penny’, often plumping for ‘one criteria’ and ‘one pence’, and even the Financial Times thinks ‘The performance of smaller companies is a worldwide phenomena’. We tend to believe ‘biceps’, ‘forceps’ and ‘militia’ come only in the plural, while we breezily add an s to Lyon and Marseille.

And now psychobabble brings us ‘behaviours’, ‘harms’ and ‘learnings’. ‘Geographies’ are cropping up, too. Ye gods. It’s time to retire – to The Cedars, The Gables, Greenacres, The Hollies, Oaklands, Pippins, The Squirrels, Treetops. Perhaps to a mews – but that’s a word for another day.