Opinion Page

# Three in series “Things I Learned at School that don’t Matter Anymore”

Of Singulars and Plurals

At school in the 1940’s, we learned that one must say and write, “A flock of birds is flying over the field.” “The herd of cows is grazing peacefully.”

This is because (the teacher said) the verb “is” in each case is governed by a singular subject, “flock” and “herd” respectively. Therefore, the singular form “is” of the verb is required. Never are.

We now find, as a matter of course, that these sentences are rendered as follows: “A flock of birds are flying. . .” and “A herd of cows are grazing. . .”

The reasoning is that the whole phrase “a flock of birds” is a plural idea serving as the subject of the sentence. Similarly, a herd of cows, is clearly more than one cow, and so the plural form is acceptable. Stephen Pinker has said so, so it must be right.

I’m finding in my reading of the Toronto Star and other journalistic works, that a new rule seems to have evolved, ie., the preposition “of”, if followed by a plural word, takes a plural verb. Or more simply, a verb form agrees in number with the closest noun.

So: The employee of many skills are in high demand.

This variety of apples are used for pigfeed.

Journalists who probably wouldn’t write the sentences above, since they don’t feel quite right, do write sentences like the following:

Since 1850, volume of glaciers have fallen 60% . . .” (Toronto Star, October 30, 2021)

Ultimately . . . the implementation of regulations prompt debates grounded in the structure of the modern state. (Toronto Star, September 28, 2021)

Clearly, “volume” is not plural, either in form or meaning. So “volume of glaciers” isn’t a plural idea. In fact, it lumps all glaciers together as a unit. One. The volume has fallen . . .

Perhaps one can make a case that “implementation of regulations” is a plural idea, yet it seems to me that regarding it as such weakens the force of “implementation.” The debates are prompted by implementation as a policy, not by this implementation or that one. It’s the policy (singular) that prompts (singular) the debates.

Even the herd of cows is something unified and different from this cow and that one plus some others. Collectives such as herd, flock, pride, are unified and their unity should be respected by the singular verb.

A nation (singular) of citizens is (singular) still a nation.

On the other hand, even my teacher would never say, “A lot of people believes in the tooth fairy.”