English with all its aberrations in spelling and pronunciation is fairly simple when it comes to forming plurals (with innumerable exceptions, of course). For most nouns, you can feel pretty safe just adding -s or -es and be done with it. My daughter arrived at that conclusion by age three, and, one day when she was getting dressed asked for her “clo.” Once you’ve tacked on that “s,” you switch to a plural verb. Easy, right?
Orrin Hargraves in his current Language Lounge column for Visual Thesaurus points out two classes of exceptions. One is the group of words that in earlier English ended in -ik (physik, magike) or the French -ique. In modern English these words generally end in –ic or –ics. Having that “s” doesn’t automatically call for a plural verb, though (“Physics is beyond me”). And sometimes, it depends. He gives the example of “optics.” If you’re talking about the field of study, it’s acts like the word physics and takes a singular verb: “Optics explores light and vision.” But if you’re talking about any number of events in our recent political history, it calls for a plural verb: “The optics were bad.” The ethics too, sometimes.
A second strangely interesting group of nouns that are plural (that is, end in “s”) whose verbs are tricky have to do with disease and illness. (Why? Is this a philosophical question?) Measles, mumps, the bends, rickets, smallpox (plural of pock), yaws are among Hargraves’s examples. An attack of any of these conditions usually has multiple effects (not just one measly measle), yet they take a singular verb. The whole things is simpler if you refer to “a case of measles/smallpox/the bends,” with “case” taking a singular verb, unequivocally.
But singular verb isn’t a universal solution here. He takes up conditions in which the noun is plural (hiccups, shakes, sneezes) and takes a plural verb too—no “My hiccups is embarrassing.”
In reading, I frequently run across passages where the author/editor allowed themselves to be distracted by a prepositional phrase, in sentences such as “The group of teenagers are celebrating.” Clearly the subject is “group,” a collective noun, not “teenagers,” and in American English, collective nouns are singular and usually take singular verbs. However, British and American English differ on this question. Other collectives are class, family, jury, staff, and team. I never have become comfortable with “the staff is,” and don’t trust myself to get it right, so usually amend the phrase to “the staff members are.” That workaround also helps with “members of the press,” “family members,” and in other situations.
The word “number” presents its own challenges. It’s correct to say, “A number of us are . . .” but “The number of victims is . . .” The former example refers to an undefined, possibly malleable number of people; the latter refers to a specific integer, even if the precise number is unknown.
Well, I’m happy to have cleared that up.
Photo: Writer’s Square, Belfast. Copyright, Albert Bridge; creative commons license