Singular humanities (round 2)

It started (for me) with a quotation from Derek Bok in the NYT that had “the humanities has” in it — with the humanities (formally plural) treated as grammatically singular. In a posting here, I related this to some other (at least roughly) similar cases, among them singular crossroads and United States. But, as usual, there’s more complexity here.

(Note: I didn’t claim that the usage was new, for some absolute sense of new — only that, as far as I could tell, it was new in my experience. This is a statement about my autobiography, not about the history of English usage. It’s possible that I just didn’t notice it. It’s also possible that the usage has been around, but with a low frequency, and I just happened to stumble on it this week.)

I was suspicious of the quotation, but now I’ve seen that the Times has left it untouched on-line, and that there are a modest number of other hits for grammatically singular the humanities. So I’m going to conclude that some people (otherwise looking to be users of standard English) have this variant alongside grammatically plural the humanities. A few representative Google hits:

What I was thinking mostly is that the humanities has become somewhat of a ghetto at many institutions as requirements for those courses … (link)

But then you also have to ask: if Stanley Fish thinks the humanities has no use, then why does he write for the NYT? (link)

And, getting back to the piles of dusty books, the humanities has never had very good press. Scientific breakthroughs make headlines … (link)

It turns out that there is similar variation (in standard English) for the arts, in examples like:

I think the arts has a lot to teach us about multiculturalism as content that needs to be included across the curriculum, … (link)

I haven’t found such examples for the sciencesThis might be because many people view the sciences as a simple collectivity, grouped together for joint reference (like the counties (of California)), while these people view the humanities and the arts as having more unity, so that the humanities and the arts come close to being proper names. And proper names that are plural in form often allow either plural or singular syntax (“The Fugs were/was an amazing band”), depending on which of the two viewpoints — a collectivity of individuals or a unified whole — the speaker/writer wants to highlight.

(There are still other complexities here, illustrated in “The bacon and eggs at table 3 wants a cup of coffee” and “Bacon and eggs is a satisfying, but not especially healthful, breakfast” — on both of which there’s some literature.)

In any case, here’s my quick take on the variation in standard English:

(1) There are people — I am one — for whom the humanities and the arts are grammatically plural, period.

(2) There are people who can treat the humanities or the arts or both as grammatically plural in some contexts, grammatically singular in others. Derek Bok is such a person, on the evidence of examples like this one, from his remarks at Harvard’s 2007 commencement:

Their critics reply that the humanities have lost their way and immersed themselves in obscure postmodern theorizing about race, gender and class. (link)

I suspect that (1) and (2) exhaust the universe of standard English speakers. That is, I suspect that no such user always treats the humanities and/or the arts as grammatically singular. Instead, for them such expressions have both grammatically plural and grammatically singular variants, probably with a subtle difference in semantics/pragmatics.

A final question: are grammatically singular the humanities and the arts M (“mass”) expressions or C (“count”) expressions? (From here on, I’ll discuss only the humanities.)

Both possibilies are real. In current standard usage, discipline names like mathematics, physics, and linguistics (which are formally plural; they are not plurals historically, but some people occasionally treat them as if they were) are clearly M nouns: they don’t allow individuation (*one mathematic/physic/linguistic) and do allow M determiners (much mathematics/physics/linguistics).

On the other hand, some formally plural nouns that can be, but don’t have to be, grammatical singular  are clearly C in their singular uses; recall a crossroads, from my previous posting.

What about the humanities? In this case, it’s hard to tell, because the humanities, whether grammatically plural or singular, has the definite article “built in”; it resembles an arthrous (article-bearing) proper name, like the Fugs. My best guess is that such expressions are C when they’re grammatically plural and M when they’re grammatically singular. Not much hangs on this, but we could look for instances of grammatically singular the humanities serving as antecedent for anaphoric it, as in this (invented) example:

The humanities has languished at many universities, and it attracts few students.


The Fugs still has a loyal following, even though it has been around for decades.

 [Odds and ends:

(1) There are examples in which C humanities (in the relevant sense) can occur with determiners other than the, for example many:

Many humanities are practiced by solitary researchers, but we also see huge interdisciplinary teams. (link)

How many humanities are there? (link)

(2) Related to observation (1) are some occurrences of singular C humanity (in the relevant sense):

You may also want to look into law school as a BA in psychology and maybe a minor in political science or even a humanity is a really good … (link)

D’Arcy Thompson’s writing, hailed as ‘good literature as well as good science; a discourse on science as though it were a humanity’, is now made available … (link)

(3) And there are various contexts in which normally arthrous expressions can be anarthrous:

Fugs/Humanities Rule(s)! ]

5 Responses to “Singular humanities (round 2)”

  1. Jonathan Lundell Says:

    FWIW, SOED identifies mathematics as having a plural history.

    Pl. of mathematic noun, prob. after French (les) mathématiques, repr. Latin mathematica neut. pl., Greek (ta) mathēmatika: see -ics.]

    Orig. (treated as pl., freq. with the), the sciences or disciplines of the quadrivium collectively; later, these and optics, architecture, navigation, etc. Now (treated as sing.), the abstract deductive science of space, number, quantity, and arrangement, including geometry, arithmetic, algebra, etc.

    Physics likewise has a plural history.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Jonathan Lundell: I should never rely on my memory. But the OED tells a much more complicated story about English discipline names related (directly or distantly) to Greek -ikos adjectives. At one point the English nouns were mostly singulars in -ic (variously spelled), then plurals in -ics, then singulars in -ics. And there was, of course, variation.

    The upshot of all this is that it doesn’t really make much sense to talk about the “original” number of these nouns. I regret having introduced the historical issue at all, especially since it’s not relevant to current usage.

  3. mollymooly Says:

    “Politics” is another one that’s variable: singular mass-noun as an academic discipline, often plural in possessives like “What are his politics?”

  4. “Embrace the Absurdity” Signapore Part 2 | The Palindromic Says:

    […] times. Still, asserting “The Arts” as singular might be taking things a step too far.  Or is it?  I am loath to play the “it just doesn’t sound right” card, but it just […]

  5. Johnnie Gratton Says:

    Long under threat from critical theorists who have claimed the noun ‘archive’ in the singular as a broad, abstract, conceptual category, archivists are still trying to protect their ‘archives’, understood to be a grammatically singular noun. The Archives is not open today…

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