Wretched ExceSS

In the intro to the WTF* menu, we noted that some linguistic trends are so baffling only the most devoted word-and-phrase geeks can figure out how they popped up. More puzzling than the origin of such trends is the reason. This semi-diatribe is devoted to the wholly (pick your adjective) unnecessary, gratuitous, superfluous, uncalled-for pluralization of collective nouns.

Hold your s’s! Were it written or spoken today, this sentence from a decade or two ago – “Speculation is that the impact on our freedom is negligible” – would probably end up with one or more of its three nouns pluralized. In fact, a twenty-first century speaker might go for a triple-hitter: “Speculations are that the impacts on our freedoms are negligible.”

A friend of mine surmises that the inclination to pluralize collective nouns (also called uncountable nouns or mass nouns) began with sociologists’ use of behaviors. It’s hardly surprising that people who study group behavior in its limitless forms believe a singular noun does no justice to their subject’s complexity. Still, any defense of most of the offenses below – all recently voiced on TV by highly paid ladies and gentlemen who should know better – is simply indefensible.

  • “They’re beginning to attract some dissents, though.”
  • “Gingrich’s transactions have come under increased scrutinies.
  • “What needs to be said is, ‘Get your acts together.’”
  • “Our children’s educations will be cut!’”
  • “Intensified Rebel threats are increasing anxieties.
  • “The practice was discontinued because young soldiers were being put in dangers.” (!)
  • “You can refinance one hundred percent of your home’s values.” (!!)
  • “[Pope Francis] is not a man of a lot of pomp and circumstances.” (!!!)
  • “As it happens, today is the last day of schools here in Moore.” (#*@%!)
  • “Today, Congress finally gave in to the wills of the people.”
  • “Many localities will see that dense fog reducing visibilities this evening.”
  • “Thinking changed because people were tired of the invasions of their privacy.”

Give some thought to the last example – the one with invasions. Yes, the word people demands the plural verb were, but that doesn’t mean the direct object should be pluralized; invasion has always applied to two (or two hundred or more) invasions of the privacy of a person or group, not to a single incident.

More significant is the speed with which the penchant to pluralize took hold. After first noticing an excess s in late 2011, I heard two or three more examples within days. The dam soon broke, and gratuitous s’s flooded the airwaves.

A Possible Cause. Could the trend go hand in hand with the collapse of the grammatical agreement in number rule, with such sentences as “An array [singular in number] of things were [plural in number] on display” now par for the course? Perhaps. But no matter the cause, all of us will be wise to not only stop tacking unnecessary s’s onto collective nouns but also to revisit our grammar lessons and remember that a sentence’s subject, not the nearest plural word, determines the verb’s number.

March 15, 2014 update: In the space of a week, the noun radar became radars when voiced by anyone and everyone on television. But why so quickly? Because it became the Word of the Day in the wake of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Developed in the late nineteenth century, radar** was put to practical use in the very early twentieth – and before long, numerous different systems existed. Therefore, radar seems to be one collective noun that has good reason to be pluralized now and then.

*WTF? = What the, er, funk?

**Didn’t realize radar is an acronym? To see what its letters stand for, check out Acronym to Real Word.

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