Wednesday, January 14, 2009

is (pl.)

English is one of those languages that distinguish between singular and plural verb tenses—but lately, this distinction has sometimes been missed.

On January 10, 2009, The Toronto Star ran an article by its Asia bureau chief, Bill Schiller, about Charter 08, an admirable “grassroots petition for human rights” in China. At one point, while describing the current state of that country, he writes, “the glow and glue of the Olympics is gone.”

Now, no matter how closely stuck together glow and glue might be, they will always be, well, ‘they,’ not ‘it.’ As such, the corresponding verb should be pluralized: ‘are,’ not ‘is.’

The same article is guilty of another poorly conjugated construction elsewhere. A professor in New York, Thomas Kellogg, is quoted as saying, “The charter’s depth, breadth, eloquence and sophistication indicates a significant step forward.”

Clearly, the verb should be conjugated in the plural tense, as ‘indicate,’ given that it refers to multiple facets of the charter.

There may be a pesky trend at work whereby various elements in a sentence are treated as a singular noun, even when explicitly presented as a list. Schiller’s article brings to mind a scene in the 1999 blockbuster, The Matrix, when a threatening Sentinel robot is described as, “a killing machine designed for one thing … search and destroy.” Uh, those would be two things ….


  1. Outstanding post. I'm standing in front of my desk applauding right now. Along the same vein, what do you think of writers using "they" as a singular pronoun, when they're uncomfortable saying "he" and too lazy to say "he or she"? Some dictionaries seem to accept it. (See the second usage entry here: But I hate it because I think it's fundamentally incorrect, plus lazy and inelegant. You can just about always solve that problem in a better way if you give it a minute's thought. For example, instead of writing "If a driver wants to stay safe, they will..." just write "Drivers who want to stay safe will..." or even "Safe drivers will...."

    Ah, I feel unburdened now.

  2. I often use 'he/she,' but sometimes I pluralize as you do.