Singular, plural, collective

A follow-up to my posting on Ned Halley’s Dictionary of Modern English Grammar, about plurals and collectives.

The issue comes up in Halley’s entry on apostrophe (the mark of punctuation), where he writes (punctuation as in the original):

There remains the little problem of where the apostrophe goes according to single [I assume he’s (incorrectly) treating single and singular as interchangeable technical terms] and plural possessive use. But again, it’s simple. If the possessor is single, as in “the girl’s hat” the apostrophe is placed before the ‘s.’ If the possessor is plural, as in “the girls’ school” the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’ because it is, in effect, abbreviating what would otherwise be “the girls’s school.” Remember that collective words, such as children, crowd, and people, are singular, so in the possessive are written as “the children’s party”, “the crowd’s favourite”, “the people’s friend” and so on. [The emphasis is mine.]

This is seriously confused. I’m guessing that, as with single and singular, Halley is confusing characterizations of meaning (reference to an individual, as with single) and characterizations of grammatical properties (allowing an expression to take part in various syntactic constructions, for example subject-verb agreement, as with singular). There are excellent reasons why individuated reference and singular grammatical number should be distinguished — though they are obviously related — and I suppose it’s too much to expect that your typical person on the street would appreciate this point, but it’s utterly crucial for someone who hangs out a shingle saying they’re offering advice on grammar, syntax, and usage (as Halley does).

Here are the facts: the English nouns children and people are grammatically plural —

these/*this children/people [determiner agreement]

The children/people were/*was shouting. [subject-verb agreement]

(and refer to collectivities), but the noun crowd (which also refers to a collectivity) is grammatically singular, as can be seen from determiner agreement:

this/*these crowd of well-wishers

A complication: collective nouns like crowd sometimes show mixed behavior with respect to other sorts of agreement, allowing “notional” plural agreement in certain circumstances. But the facts about determiner agreement are clear, and indeed collective nouns are count nouns and have ordinary plural forms (crowds, for instance).

What sets children and people apart from most plural nouns is that they don’t have the -s suffix of regular plurals. Children is one of a number of irregular plurals, of several types (women, teeth, alumni, and more). People is one of a number of plural-only nouns with no suffix -s (cattle and police are two others). And there are zero-plural (or “base-plural”) nouns as well (like sheep), with the plural form identical to the singular. These are well-known phenomena, described (along with some other anomalies in the English system of number in nouns) in every reasonably extensive reference work on the structure of English. It’s inexcusable that Halley should not know about them.

5 Responses to “Singular, plural, collective”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Hmmm. I never thought about this. Is “the deer’s” correct for singular AND plural “deer”? I don’t see that in any of my books, but by analogy with “the men’s” it would seem to be so.

  2. John Lawler Says:

    Yes, it’s

    the lemming’s mad dash (sg only)
    the lemmings’ mad dash (pl only)
    the salmon’s mad dash (sg or pl)

  3. John Cowan Says:

    I don’t think that people in the context the people’s friend is plural. People has become the irregular plural of person, but it continues to be used as a singular noun with a regular plural. Since the persons’ friend would mean something quite different from the people’s friend, I think we must conclude that this use of people is singular.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To John Cowan: yes, there are two nouns people, the one I intended to talk about in my posting (a plural noun) and another one that’s singular (and has a regular plural peoples). The first has several uses, including one for ‘human beings in general or considered collectively’ and one in the people ‘the citizens of a country’ (definitions from NOAD2). So: “People are/*is funny” and “The people are/*is rioting in the streets”. Such uses of people do not alternate with persons.

    I maintain that the people of “a friend of the people” and “the people’s friend” is a use of this plural noun people.

  5. John Cowan Says:

    Hmmm, point. Concedo.

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