Ask Mint | Common mix-ups regarding the one, the many

Ask Mint | Common mix-ups regarding the one, the many

When the allotment of VIP licence plates in New Delhi was making news, an opposition spokesperson said the chief minister should resign, adding that she won’t resign “because she doesn’t have any morals, now".

In saying this, the leader was tricked by the quirks of the English vocabulary into making an insinuation that he surely did not intend. To say of someone that she does not have any morals is a damaging, even damning allegation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “morals" means “a person’s lifestyle or self-conduct, esp. in sexual matters". Other dictionaries too link the word to sexual conduct. “Moral right" would have been the appropriate phrase in this context.

This example shows that some nouns undergo a shift in meaning when the suffix “-s" is added. “Damage" and “damages" have moved apart in meaning. “Damage" in the sense of harm or injury does not take a plural form. “Damages" means money payable as compensation for loss. In defamation cases, the court awards damages. Another example is “airs", which has a figurative meaning and is rather disparaging, as in “putting on airs".

The English plural can be viewed from two angles: the grammatical angle and the semantic one—form and meaning, in other words.

The regular mode of forming plurals is by the addition of the suffix “-s" or “-es". But, there are several other patterns, and some of them can be difficult.

First we have unchanged plurals, such as deer, sheep. They offer no problems. But when you hear a newsreader reporting that the aircraft carrier can accommodate 20 aircrafts, you need to note the error.?Words?ending?in?“-craft", signifying airborne or seaborne vehicles, have the same form in singular and plural.

Then, we have plurals that involve a change of vowel. Many humorous comments have been made about this feature. If mouse becomes mice and louse becomes lice, why don’t we change house into hice? If tooth gives us teeth, booth should give us beeth. What should be the plural of mouse, the computer peripheral? Mice or mouses? A Microsoft publication says: “Avoid using the plural mice; if you need to refer to more than one mouse, use mouse devices." But the speakers of English favour mice.

Crisis forms its plural by a vowel change. We get “-ses" in place of “-sis": “crises" (pronounced like cry-cease). Other common plural forms to be noted here are diagnoses, analyses, theses, and synopses. “Bases" can be the plural of both “basis" and “base".

There are a few words that look singular, but are plural: cattle, clergy, youth and police. They represent an aggregate or a group. Indian media are undecided about the word police. On the web page of a news channel, there was a headline using police in the singular; then the very first sentence of the report used a plural verb. The headline was “Police probes Delhi acid attack." The first sentence read: “The police are probing the attack on Tarveen Suri."

Some words representing a collection can be either singular or plural. Compare “The committee is meeting tomorrow", with “The committee are divided on this question." Be consistent when you use team, jury and other words referring to a group. Company names sometimes go with plural verbs: “Maruti Udyog are launching two new models."

News is singular in spite of its ending. Words like alms, riches and headquarters are usually plural. But sometimes “headquarters" is treated as singular. “Amends" is singular; you cannot make one amend. Likewise, you cannot have one archive or one annal or one credential. Luggage and baggage, like furniture, are singular and do not take “-s". People in IT should take special care to avoid saying informations.

“Data" and “media" are two widely debated words. “Data" is plural and means “something given". Grammarians insist on its being used as plural, but in general use, it remains singular: “The data is not sufficient." Some dictionaries approve this use, but style manuals recommend the plural use. There is, likewise, uncertainty in the use of media. A politician might say, “The media is after my blood." Here “media" is seen as a single entity comprising reporters, editors and photographers. When you think of multiple media, you could say, “The media have given wide coverage to this event." The usage depends on the context and the intended meaning.

An interesting debate is going on about the plural of “person". If a school-going child hears you say “three persons", he or she may ask you to say “three people". “People" has been used as plural of “person" for centuries. The old rule that we should use “persons" after small numbers and “people" after large numbers is disappearing.

V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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