Commonly misused words
Otherwise, it is the usual abuse.
Wolf Hall (2010)
Language changes constantly. It has to, because the world and society are continuously in flux. New words, and new ways of using existing words, are needed to deal with new realities. As a result, linguists and grammarians are always at risk of finding themselves behind the times. Additionally, if these factors do not act as sufficient barriers to defining correct usage, language experts (much like other types of experts) rarely entirely concur.
Despite all this, there is still at least broad agreement on what words in English mean and how they should be used. And, although the language is living and fluid, it would be unreasonable to suggest that at any stage in its development there has been a norm of ’anything goes’. Instead, notions of correct English usage have tended to be based on a mixture of tradition, scholarship and the linguistic habits of educated people.
The key to good English remains clear and effective communication. This can be challenging when words are used in complex or subtle ways. This chapter examines some of the more involved aspects of English usage and, more specifically, some of the ways words are commonly misused.
Words in this chapter are treated in three categories:
1. Misuse of words: this section focuses on individual words that are often misused.
2. Misuse of word forms: this section examines inflected forms (forms derived from the main word form) that are often misused.
3. Problems with agreement: this section tackles issues relating to subject—verb agreement for particular words.
Misuse of words
The commonly misused words in this section are categorised and organised by PART OF SPEECH (see chapter 1): noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition and conjunction.
In formal contexts, this technical noun should not be used in the weakened meaning of ’pretext’, because this potentially compromises its precise legal sense of ’claim or evidence that someone was elsewhere’. It is better to avoid overuse when excuse is the more natural word to use:
He used his illness as an excuse [not as an alibi] for leaving work early.
When used as a noun (or less commonly as a verb), crescendo describes a process and not the end of a process. This is usually well understood in musical contexts, where the word is a technical term. In figurative uses, though, one may be lured into using it as an alternative for climax, which is indeed the end point or culmination of a process. In thoughtful usage, noise or feeling can increase to a climax but it does so in a crescendo. The following examples are correct:
The bird’s calls rose in a crescendo.
The abusive phone calls reached a peak [not crescendo] the following week.
Enormity shares a history with and closely resembles the common adjective enormous. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that enormity is the noun form of enormous, and simply means ’immensity’. This isn’t the case. Enormity carries with it the idea of something very large, but it also conveys the notion of something extremely bad:
We are shocked at the enormity of the terrorist attacks.
They committed crimes of unsurpassed enormity.
The noun phrase a percentage is better avoided when simply ’some’ is intended. For example,
Some [not a percentage] of the students have tablets.
The word percentage is meaningless unless it’s qualified by an adjective such as large or small, as in a large percentage of the population. It’s still best avoided where many, much, a few or a little will suffice.
The standard meaning of the verb aggravate is ’make worse’.
Sometimes the use of aggravate to mean ’irritate’ meets with disapproval, despite a history of usage dating to the 17th century:
We were aggravated by the continuous loud noise from the street.
Their bad behaviour is very aggravating.
Except in informal conversation, when aggravate appears in this way it’s usually better to replace with another word such as annoy, exasperate or irritate.
Although the verb author has been in existence for over four hundred years, some object to it in contexts such as
She has authored several books.
This is because, unlike write, it means to be responsible for the content of a printed or published document. The verb author may sound more natural in contexts referring to the creation of, for example, reports or studies.
The popular meaning of decimate, ’destroy’, now predominates, perhaps because the need for a word meaning specifically ’kill one person in ten’ is unlikely to be needed today. Even so, decimate is still better reserved for ’removing a proportion of’ or ’reducing the strength of’. For example,
Lack of funding has decimated public transport.
For the broader popular meaning, it is advisable to use annihilate, exterminate, destroy or devastate.
The verb depend should be followed by on when it introduces a CLAUSE (see chapter 2, here) beginning with how, what, where, whether, who or why:
It depends on how you interpret the word ’liberal’.
The amount you pay depends on what you earn.
The omission of on in sentences of this type is more acceptable in speech than in writing, as in
’Are you planning to go?’
The use of get instead of be to form the passive is more acceptable in some contexts than others:
The house is [or gets] cleaned once a week.
The exhibition was [not got] opened by the mayor.
Get is usually more informal than be: an interviewer might ask an interviewee,
If you are offered the job, will you accept it?
Whereas the interviewee might tell a friend,
If I get offered the job, I’ll take it.
Get is probably most acceptable when it implies that the subject of the sentence has at least some responsibility for an event or action, as in
If you play with matches, you may get burnt,
as opposed to
The passengers may have been burnt during the crash landing.
While in modern usage MODAL VERBS (see chapter 1, here) may and might overlap, it is helpful to bear in mind that might is the past tense of may.
In certain contexts, however, may is used to refer to the past. Perhaps influenced by the idiom be that as it may, meaning ’that may be so, but…’ or ’with all due respect…’, it is legitimate to use may in a clause admitting something was the case before going on to make a more important point.
He may have been bad-tempered but he was a genius.
It remains more appropriate to use might when a more straightforward past tense is required, usually implying something was not the case:
He might have graduated from college in 2015, but his curriculum vitae says 2016.
Might should also be used when a very unlikely hypothetical situation is under discussion:
We can still speculate that some passengers and crew members of the downed aircraft might have survived in the cold Atlantic waters.
It is tempting to think that back in the phrase refer back is an unnecessary repetition or REDUNDANCY (see chapter 12, here), because one of the implicit meanings of re- is ’back’. But a person may refer a problem or request on to a new authority for a decision, or refer it back to the original decision-maker for reconsideration. However, if refer directs people to something already mentioned, for example, a text quoted, there is no need to use back:
Let me refer you again to here of my book.
The use of transpire to mean ’happen’ or ’occur’, is sometimes regarded as not strictly correct, even though it’s been in common use for several centuries. It may be safer to write, for example,
Tell me what happened [not transpired] at the meeting.
Less controversially transpire refers to something previously unknown and means ’be disclosed’:
It transpired that the prime minister had known about the plan all along.
The adjective actual is legitimately used to mark a contrast. In the sentence
The actual total was much higher than we had expected,
it serves to create a contrast with projected or estimated totals.
This adjective is often overused, however, as a merely emphatic term with no real meaning. For example, in
He wanted to know if any damage had been done.
it may be tempting to add actual for emphasis (any actual damage), but this would be redundant and poor style.
When used correctly, analogous should include a notion of analogy, that is, of similarity in certain respects:
The mutual aid group is somewhat analogous to a colony of bees.
It is better to avoid analogous when the comparison is only general, and a more straightforward word such as similar, equivalent, comparable or corresponding serves equally well, as in
The new system is comparable [not analogous] to that used in the electronics industry.
The core meaning of crucial is ’decisive’:
Her casting vote was crucial.
However, crucial has been diminished and is often used to mean nothing more than ’important’. This is especially true when the author wants to use a hard-hitting word, but it is better to avoid such overuse:
If proportional representation is adopted, it is important [better than crucial] to choose the best method.
Traditionally, owing to rather than due to is the appropriate PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE (see chapter 2, here) to use in sentences such as these:
The concert has been cancelled owing to [not due to] circumstances beyond our control.
The flight was delayed owing to [not due to] bad weather.
The objection is based on the fact that due is an adjective (without prepositional force) and so should describe a noun, as in
The delay was due to bad weather,
where due modifies delay.
The adjective endemic refers to something that is found throughout a particular area or group. Originally used of diseases, it is now often used in other contexts:
Corruption is endemic in the industry.
Endemic is sometimes misused in the sense of ’universal’ or ’found everywhere’, without a particular context being identified. In the following examples
Swearing is endemic among young people and
Swearing is endemic in the office,
the inclusion of the group (among young people) or area (in the office) is required for correctness.
Note that the word optimum refers to quality, not quantity. It means ’best’, not ’greatest’ or ’most’:
the optimum temperature for the storage of perishable foodstuffs
It sometimes happens that the best is also the greatest or most, which may be the reason for the confusion about the meaning of the word:
We are seeking optimum return on our investment.
In its meaning ’sharing some qualities’, the adjective similar is followed by to, not as:
My own experience has been similar to yours.
I had a similar experience to [not as] yours.
In formal writing, the DETERMINER (see chapter 2, here) this should be avoided where the definite article the or the indefinite articles a/an are the appropriate choices.
After the exam I had the worrying thought [not this worrying thought] that I had not answered the third question.
Suddenly a woman [not this woman] selling cosmetics appeared at my door.
Like its root actual, the adverb actually is used most effectively when it contrasts with what is theoretical or only apparent:
It sounds difficult, but it’s actually quite straightforward.
It is regarded as poor style to use actually as a sentence filler with no real meaning, although this practice is common in informal conversation:
Actually, I prefer her to her cousin.
If ago is used, it should be followed by that and not since in a following clause:
It was several weeks ago that I saw them.
If ago is left out, then since is used:
It is several weeks since I saw them.
Using basically as a SENTENCE ADVERB (see chapter 1, here), where it is reduced to adding emphasis, as in
Basically it’s a waste of time.
is common in informal conversation but should be avoided otherwise. So too should the meaning ’generally’, as in
It is basically the case that fats can cause heart disease.
Both uses are essentially conversation fillers and are not required in speech, and certainly not in formal writing.
When people are asked whether, for example, a deceptively dangerous place to stand is a place that is more or less dangerous than it appears, they respond variously. A substantial minority admits they have no idea what deceptively is intended to convey. Is a deceptively large house surprisingly large or surprisingly small? Unless the context makes the meaning clear, deceptively is best avoided. It is advisable only to use it when the meaning is clear:
The solution is deceptively simple.
The adverb else (in some contexts categorised as an adjective) should not be combined with besides, but, except or other prepositions of this type. This creates redundancy, because else has the same function as the accompanying prepositional phrase.
For example, it is appropriate to write:
No one but the guard saw the intruder. [but not No one else except the guard…]
When else follows an indefinite pronoun such as anyone, nobody or someone in a possessive construction, the ’s should be added to else, not to the preceding indefinite pronoun:
We will not accept anyone else’s offer.
Else works possessively with the pronouns who and whose as follows:
Who else’s mistakes could these be? and
Whose else are these boots but yours?
If however is used to mean ’to whatever degree’, ’in whatever way’ or ’how’ at the start of an introductory clause, a comma should appear after that clause, as in
However hard it snowed during the night, the road crews were able to clear the main arteries before the rush hour.
If however meaning ’in whatever way’ modifies another adverb and they appear as a pair in mid-sentence, one comma needs to precede and another to follow the two words:
The coach has begun, however reluctantly, to admit major flaws in the team’s tactics.
It is redundant to pair but with however. One or other should be used, not both. In the following sentence, for example, any temptation to add a final however should be resisted:
The flight was postponed, but the plane did eventually take off five hours late.
The use of literally to mean actually or really, as a way of adding emphasis to a colourful figure of speech, is incorrect. For example it should be:
The leader of the opposition is breathing fire. [not literally breathing fire]
To add literally in this context would suggest that fire was actually coming out of the politician’s mouth. An alternative, of course, would be: The leader of the opposition is furious.
The proper use of literally is fairly narrow. It is mainly used to indicate that a statement is in fact true and not a figure of speech:
These little cells called osteoclasts literally eat bones.
Ambiguity can be dispelled by careful placement of the limiting adverb only. The position of only within a sentence can determine its entire meaning. As a general rule, it should appear next to the word being modified:
She had only a pound.
Only she had a pound.
Strictly this means only should usually not be placed between a subject and a verb, nor between an auxiliary verb and a main verb. For example
He does these things only to get attention. [not He only does these things…]
She will eat only cheese. [not She will only eat…]
Vaguer usage is very common, however.
Some grammarians object to adverbs ending in the suffix -wise when the meaning is ’with regard to’, or with respect to’, as in the controversial examples moneywise, timewise, and politics-wise. It is better to rephrase:
This has been an exciting year in politics. [not an exciting year, politics-wise]
The use of words ending in -wise is acceptable when the meaning of the suffix is ’in a particular manner or direction’, as in clockwise, counter-clockwise and lengthwise.
I is a PERSONAL PRONOUN (see chapter 1, here, and chapter 2, here). It is the first person singular and in the form found in the dictionary, the subjective: I agree. Me is the objective form, coming after verbs and prepositions: She agrees with me.
Potential confusion arises when I or me is linked to another pronoun, or to another noun, by conjunctions and or or. Is it you and I or you and me?
If the phrase is the subject of the sentence or clause, the answer is easy:
You and I know better than that.
When the phrase is not the subject, the correct choice is you and me, as in
They have a present for you and me. [not you and I]
It is a matter for George and me [not you and I] to discuss.
When a pronoun follows a linking verb such as be and refers to the same person or thing as the subject of the sentence, further complexities, involving informal and formal language, arise. Which of the following forms is correct?
It is I. (or It’s I.)
It is me. (or It’s me.)
Technically, It is I (or It’s I) is the correct choice in formal speech or writing. (This is on the basis that it is correct to say, for example, It is I who made the error.) In informal, conversational contexts, however, the set phrasing It is me (or It’s me) is far more common.
When a pronoun such as I or me comes after the verb be and functions as the object of a verb or preposition in a RELATIVE CLAUSE (see chapter 2, here), and when that pronoun also functions as the COMPLEMENT (see chapter 1, here) of be, the situation becomes even more ambiguous. Experts are divided as to whether I or me is more acceptable in sentences such as
It was I [or me] you were looking for.
It’s always an option to recast such sentences to avoid this difficulty:
I was the person you were looking for, or simply
You were looking for me.
For centuries that has been used to refer to people as well as things. Sometimes this usage can be clumsy:
He’s the one that did it.
But it’s not incorrect, and occasionally that is the appropriate choice of relative pronoun:
Anything or anyone that helps me is my friend.
Personal pronouns, for example, first person plural we, often appear with appositives (that is, nouns that immediately follow them, are synonymous with them, and serve to further identify them). For example,
We pilots flew five missions last night.
It may be tricky to identify the appropriate grammatical form, for example, the subjective we or the objective us, for such pronouns. In such cases it may be helpful to identify the subject and/or object of the sentence at the outset. If the pronoun is the subject, it takes the subjective case (we); if the pronoun is the object, it takes the objective case (us).
In the example above, if the appositive (that is, pilots) is omitted, the choice of subjective we makes sense: We flew… is correct, since one would not say Us flew…
Take another example,
For us pilots, the mission schedule has been exhausting.
This is correct, because the pronoun us is the object of the preposition for, and pilots is an appositive. For we pilots… sounds unnatural, as does For we, the mission schedule has been exhausting.
As a pronoun, the word what means ’the thing that’, as in
This is much nicer than what he gave me last Christmas.
Remember what I told you.
Beware of adding what where it’s not needed:
It was a lot more difficult than [not than what] I thought it would be.
Another common error is the use of what in place of that, which or who:
This is the book that [not what] I told you about.
The woman who [not what] owns the dog is out at work all day.
The objective form of the interrogative and relative personal pronoun who is whom. It’s fallen into disuse in many contexts, and constructions with who may take its place. In speech, Do you remember whom you saw? may be expressed as Do you remember who you saw? Similarly, The man to whom I was talking may become The man I was talking to (omitting the relative pronoun entirely).
In formal contexts, whom is often still preferred. Note that whom is incorrect in sentences where it would be the subject of the verb:
The woman who [not whom] we thought was dead is still alive.
In this sentence, the relative pronoun who is the subject of was and is not the object of thought.
The use of the preposition about to assert some kind of equivalency is non-standard. It is better to avoid usages such as these:
She’s about winning and nothing more.
The main character in the novel is about power.
Here, about is used to assert some kind of correspondence, however vague, between one entity (in these examples the subject, that is, she, main character) and another that the first entity supposedly illustrates or represents (that is, winning, power). It is better to rephrase:
She is obsessed with winning and nothing more.
The central interest of the main character in the novel is power.
The preposition as can be used to show the capacity in which a person or thing exists or acts:
She has a job as a copywriter.
As a doctor I understand these problems.
It is important to avoid ambiguity, or apparent absurdity, in the placement of the as clause:
As a judge, you know I do not like being asked such questions.
This sentence does not make it clear who the judge is: the speaker or the person spoken to.
The preposition like should not be used as a conjunction meaning ’as’, ’as if’ or ’as though’ to introduce a fully developed clause (that is, one with a subject and a verb), unless informally. In such circumstances, it is better to recast:
It sounds as if [not like] she may resign.
This pizza smells and tastes good, just the way it should. [not This pizza smells and tastes like a good pizza should.]
It’s acceptable to use like in a comparison as long as there is no verb in the part of the sentence following like:
She ran the company like a tyrant.
Moreover, like should not be used as a meaningless adverbial filler:
’What were the main characters doing in the first chapter?’
’They were, like, trying to understand the reasons countries go to war’.
It’s also not acceptable to introduce speech with like:
She was like, ’Don’t worry, I’ll do it.’
Such usage is non-standard in both oral and written communication, and so deemed to be poor style, except in fictional dialogue.
Because the common preposition of is pronounced with a v sound, it is all too easy to encounter the pitfall of using it as the written representation of contractions of the verb have. The preposition of, of course, is nearly always the first word in a prepositional phrase, and is therefore followed by a noun or noun phrase. The contraction of have, spelled ’ve, is nearly always part of a compound tense and is typically followed by a past participle. For example,
He could’ve [not could of] been killed.
You should’ve [not should of] followed the instructions.
It would’ve [not would of] been quicker to walk.
There are two usages of off as a preposition that should be avoided in formal writing. The first is the use of off plus an erroneous of, rather than simply off alone:
The actors stepped off [not off of] the stage.
The second is the use of off after verbs such as buy or borrow, which mean ’to obtain something’:
I bought the computer from [not off] my housemate.
This combination of two common conjunctions is a useful device for expressing possibilities in a concise form. A and/or B gives the three options ’A only’, ’B only’ or ’both A and B’. On the other hand, since and/or is not a particularly elegant expression, it’s best restricted to scientific, legal and business contexts. In more general contexts it is better to rephrase. For example,
Sarah or Anne, or perhaps both of them, will participate in the chess championship.
as far as
The conjunction as far as requires a subject and the verb be concerned, or possibly go, after it, to create a fully developed clause, rather than a phrase. The following are acceptable:
As far as I am concerned, the matter is closed.
The season looks promising, as far as our local team goes.
It is important not to confuse the conjunction as far as with the prepositions as for, as to, as regards or regarding. The following examples are correct:
As for our [not As far as our] winning the championship, it is highly unlikely, or
As far as our winning the championship goes, it is highly unlikely.
The versatile word both has many roles, as a pronoun (I like both), adjective (I like both cars) or conjunction (both pleasant and cheerful). Its mobility in a sentence is so great that its meaning can become ambiguous. For example, in the sentence,
They are both pleasant and cheerful.
It’s not immediately clear whether both belongs with they or with the complement of the sentence, pleasant and cheerful. In speech, intonation will usually clarify the intention. However, when writing, it is important to ensure the reader is not left in doubt.
Note that, when both is paired with and as a conjunction, it’s important to keep a balance between the two parts of the construction, with regard to the position of both and the types of words linked:
She is both charming and intellectual. [not She is both charming and an intellectual.]
He both sings well and likes to paint. [not He is both a fine singer and likes to paint.]
In addition to its use in conditional clauses, if can introduce an elliptical clause meaning ’even’ or ’even though not’. In
We have hundreds, if not thousands, of items in stock.
the if not fairly plainly means ’even’. In
It’s a clever idea, if not a practical one.
it fairly plainly means ’even though not’. But in
He’s good-looking, if not very handsome.
it’s unclear which of those meanings is intended — at least out of context. Often it’s clear what if not means only because the context shows what the phrase must mean. When if not may be unclear, it is better to choose another wording.
Use of plus as a conjunction to introduce an INDEPENDENT CLAUSE (see chapter 2, here) is informal:
She is the chair of the electrical engineering department, plus she has her own consulting firm.
In more formal writing, it is better to rephrase:
As well as being the chair of the electrical engineering department, she has her own consulting firm.
Similarly, in formal writing it is advisable to avoid using plus in place of and as a conjunction joining two subjects in a sentence:
Lack of practice and [not plus] a knee injury have caused her to drop out.
The use of seeing that as a conjunction, not grammatically attached to a particular subject, is established in modern English and conforms to a pattern used also in given that, granted that and similar constructions. For example,
Perhaps a higher grade might be in order, seeing that you have made only two errors.
However, it may be wise to distinguish seeing that from the less established seeing as, used in the same way, but considered less appropriate for formal writing:
I’ll leave now, seeing that [not seeing as] you look tired.
It is better style to avoid using where to introduce a clause following nouns that are unrelated to the ideas of place and space. Instead in which can often be used:
These are cases in which [not where] conferring with a specialist makes sense.
This is a situation in which [not where] monetary considerations have less weight.
Note that the preposition from is needed with where when the context involves a point of origin:
Where did that cat come from?
From where we sit, we can see the stage clearly.
It is important to avoid the redundant, dangling use of at with where. For example,
He doesn’t know where the car is. [not where the car is at]
Use of the preposition to with where in contexts involving destination is similarly better avoided. For example,
Where are you going? [not Where are you going to?]
Misuse of word forms
Words in this section have unusual inflected forms (forms derived from the root form) and so may lend themselves to misuse in certain contexts.
Although agenda is strictly speaking a plural noun meaning ’things to be done’, the singular form agendum is no longer used. Instead, agenda is used in the singular as if it were ’a list of things to be done’. Its plural form is agendas:
The agenda for tomorrow’s meeting has been changed.
This item has appeared on a number of previous agendas.
The general rule in English is that adjectives don’t decline, that is, have different forms for variation in gender or number. But a few adjectives — for example blond, and some nouns borrowed directly from French — do show such patterns.
When describing the colour of someone’s hair, blond is usually used for a person of either sex:
Jane has blond hair.
When used as a noun or adjective to describe somebody directly, blond is often used of a man or boy and blonde of a woman or girl:
He is blond. Jane is blonde/is a blonde.
This difference reflects the masculine and feminine endings in the French words. The same pattern can be seen in the borrowed nouns fiancé (masculine) and fiancée (feminine).
The irregular verb choose has as its past tense chose. Because of the variety of sounds associated with the oo spelling in English, writers occasionally fall into the trap of substituting one of these for the other, causing confusion for the reader. It may be helpful to remember that choose rhymes with snooze, while chose rhymes with nose, with the same number of vowels in each pair.
Like some other words that come to us unchanged from Latin, criterion (singular) has an irregular plural, criteria. It’s incorrect to use criteria as a singular noun (with criterias as a bogus plural). The phrase set of criteria may be used when a singular expression is required. Criteria when it appears as a subject should always take a plural verb form:
The selection criteria are somewhat opaque.
Like many words introduced into English from other languages, graffiti (from Italian) didn’t come with all its parts, and this occasionally causes issues in use. Graffiti is in fact a plural noun in Italian, and its singular is graffito. The singular noun gets some use in technical contexts, such as archaeology, where it means ’inscription in stone’. But for practical purposes, the plural graffiti is considered a mass noun in English, taking a singular verb:
Graffiti has become a challenge for London Transport.
To distinguish a single instance of graffiti from the mass noun, it’s possible to use the rare singular, but more common to write ’piece of graffiti’.
Usage varies for the plural ending of nouns derived from Latin and Greek words. For phenomenon, a singular noun from Greek, the false singular phenomena should be avoided. Similarly, never attach an -s plural, as phenomena is already the plural form. So,
These physiological phenomena [not phenomenas] are fascinating.
The word phenomenon should not be overused in non-scientific or non-philosophical contexts. It is best restricted to people, events and things that are extraordinary, not merely interesting or vaguely out of the ordinary. In scientific contexts, however, it’s the word of choice for designating an observable event.
The past participles proved and proven both appear with auxiliaries as verbs, and also as PREDICATE ADJECTIVES (after be, see chapter 1, here). Which one to use is a matter of choice, for example,
We have proved [or proven] our case, and
The case is proven [or proved].
Proved is not, however, ordinarily used as an adjective preceding a noun. The following are standard forms:
proven cases; a proven fact
The plural of stratum is strata, reflecting the word’s Latin history. Neither the false -s plural stratas nor the false Latin plural stratae should be used. So,
on all strata [not stratas nor stratae] of society
Wrought is a rare past tense and past participle of the verb work. In modern English, work is treated as a regular verb with the regular past inflection worked. Wrought is seen in only a few, somewhat specialised situations, such as ones relating to metalwork (wrought iron), and the set phrase What hath God wrought (used by Samuel Morse in the first successful test of the telegraph).
’But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.’
William Butler Yeats, ’A Coat’ (1914)
Note that wrought is not the past tense and past participle of wreak, for which the past tense in wreaked. So, the collocation is wreaked [not wrought] havoc.
Problems with agreement
In chapter 2 we discussed the rules governing the AGREEMENT (see chapter 2, here) of nouns and verbs in clauses. The following nouns, arranged alphabetically, present usage problems with regard to agreement.
When used as a pronoun, any can be followed by a singular or plural verb depending on the writer’s intended meaning. (For examples, see chapter 2, here.)
Use of the term data has exploded, to keep pace with the use of computer technology and statistical methods. Because the word’s meaning is much like that of the singular noun information, and its Latin -a plural is less recognisable as a plural than a final -s would be, it’s often treated as singular. This use is extremely common, and few perceive it as incorrect today, especially given the word’s connotation of a collection or single unit made up of many informational subunits.
In scientific and academic writing, however, data is usually treated as plural:
Our data have been assembled over a number of years.
In other contexts, data may be treated as singular, especially when it describes a body of facts, without regard to individual constituents or how they might be manipulated:
No data was available for the three days in question.
The proper and technical singular of data is datum. It’s seldom used.
Used with a plural verb, dice means ’small cubes with sides marked with dots for numbers, used in games and gambling’. The singular of this noun, rarely used, is die. Dice, used with a singular verb, means a gambling game in which these cubes are used.
The noun half is singular, but it’s treated as plural when followed by a plural noun (with or without of) or when it refers to a plural:
Half the people aren’t coming at all.
At least half of them are behaving inexcusably.
With many singular nouns, half can be used in the patterns half a share, half of a share, and a half share.
When majority is used to refer to a group of people or things as a unit or whole, it takes a singular verb:
A majority in the House of Lords intend to vote against.
When majority refers to the people within a group, it is better to use a plural verb:
The majority of our students have rooms on campus, with only a minority living out.
It is important to ensure that any pronouns referring to majority feature the same NUMBER (see chapter 1, here) as the verb. The following is correct:
The majority has had its say. [not has had their say]
Or, when the focus is on a group as individuals:
The majority of the peers have cast their votes.
Media is historically a plural of the Latin word medium. It can be safely used with a singular verb, however, depending on what it is intended to mean. When the subject is the broadcast, digital and print press in general, including all its personnel, equipment and policies, a singular verb is acceptable. The word is also invariably preceded by the in such usages:
The media has covered the story ad nauseam.
Plural media should be avoided to refer to a single system or method of communication. The singular medium should be used instead:
Print is an outdated medium.
It is important to avoid the bogus plural medias. The correct form is media, as in new media.
Either a singular or a plural verb can accompany the collective noun number, depending on how it is used. If the definite article the precedes number, a particular number is stipulated, even if of and a series of things comes next. Therefore, a singular verb should be used with number preceded by the:
The number of surgical masks available is limited.
If, on the other hand, the indefinite article a precedes number, a plural verb should be used:
A number of surgical masks are available.
When a prepositional phrase immediately follows one and modifies it, sense determines whether the verb should be singular or plural. In any given case one choice is right and the other wrong. To decide which verb form to choose, the starting point should be what follows the preposition. For example, in
He is one of those people who are [not is] always trying to impress
the key preposition is of. If we try transposing the example, we can see that it is not equivalent in meaning to
Of those people, he is one who is always trying to impress.
Rather, transposing another way, the idea is
Of those people who are always trying to impress, he is one.
Here the form of the verb be is governed not by one but by people, and therefore one of those people who are is right.
In the following example the choice of the form of be is governed by only:
She is the only one among those people who is worth talking to.
If we transpose, we can see the idea is
Among those people, she is the only one who is worth talking to.
So in this case one among those people who is is right.
In most cases people behaves as a plural, as in
People are strange; you never know what they will do.
However when people means ’a group of human beings sharing a specific nationality, culture or language’, it’s regarded as a singular and when used in the plural, takes an -s plural ending:
a Celtic people
one of several such peoples noted for their pacifism
The possessive of people is formed by adding an ’s if one people is intended:
She’s the people’s choice for President.
If many peoples are intended, the possessive is formed by adding an apostrophe after the plural -s:
Various Native American peoples’ representatives attended the conference.
If per cent stands alone without a subsequent prepositional phrase, either a singular or a plural verb can be used with it:
Sixty per cent is accounted for.
Sixty per cent are accounted for.
If a prepositional phrase following per cent contains a noun or pronoun object regarded as a unit or a whole, a singular verb should be used:
Sixty per cent of the electorate is accounted for.
If the object of the preposition in such a phrase is regarded as a number of people or things, a plural verb is appropriate:
Sixty per cent of the votes are accounted for.
If the definite article the precedes percentage, just one specific percentage is indicated, so a singular verb should be used:
The percentage of families living below the poverty line is shocking.
If the indefinite article a precedes percentage, and when the noun or pronoun in any subsequent prepositional phrase is regarded as a countable plural, not a unit or a whole, a plural verb should be used:
A large percentage of the errors are to be found in this text.
If the noun or pronoun object in such a phrase is singular or is regarded as a unit or a whole, a singular verb is appropriate:
A large percentage of the electorate remains undecided.
The plural of the singular noun series is the same: series. So, series can take either a singular or a plural verb depending on its meaning. If it is used to mean ’a single set of things’, a singular verb is appropriate, even if series is followed by the preposition of and a plural noun:
A series of medical tests is planned for next week.
If series is used in the plural to mean ’two or more sets of things’, a plural verb is appropriate:
Several series of medical tests are planned over the next month.
If what is used as the subject of a clause, it takes a plural or singular verb depending on whether its complement (that is, the word or phrase completing the sentence) is plural or singular. (For examples, see chapter 2, here.)