The English language has many rules for singular and plural nouns. Yet, they are often confusing. The words, like team, family, couple and crew send even a seasoned writer into a tizzy.
Such nouns can be used as singular or as plural. When we mean a single group or unit, we use it with a singular verb. We may say, “Our team is the best.”
If we take it to mean a number of individuals, we may use it with a plural verb. For example, our team are wearing their new jerseys.
The Times Sunday Times style guide also favours using “team” as the plural noun with a plural verb. West Ham are in outstanding form. It further says, “But the sports clubs usually take the singular, especially in the news stories. It cites an example: Manchester City Football Club was fined heavily.
Another confusing collective noun is “family.” The Times Sunday Times style guide suggests that it should be used as a plural. The example it quotes is, “The family are rearranging their holiday.”
Beware when using “families” to break down big numbers and humanise the impact of government policies (budgets, tax changes etc). It is necessary to explain that every family will actually have to pay.
Using families as a synonym for households or people understandably annoys the many readers, who are living alone.
Family signifies the union of man and woman, especially through marriage, and their offspring; their children; parents and their children.
Certain words are always plural and take a plural verb. Clothes and police belong to this category. The word “police” is really confusing, since it looks like a singular noun. It is, however, “police” “are.”
There are a few words consisting of two parts: breeches, pants, pyjamas, trousers etc. Some tools and instruments consisting of two parts are plural, like binoculars, pliers, scissors, spectacles, glasses, scales, shears etc.
“Scissors” is used a plural, but this word can also be used as singular. Belfast Telegraph writes: A snip of the scissors or a shampoo or set. It is better to use such words attributively. For example, kitchen scissors, nail scissors, pinking scissors
Carlyle wrote: Suddenly shorn through by the scissors of Destiny.
There are a few other words that we regularly use as plural. They are arms (weapons), damages (compensation), earnings, goods/wares, greens (vegetables), grounds, outskirts, pains (trouble/effort), particulars, premises/quarters, riches, savings, spirits (alcohol), stairs, surroundings and valuables.
Another confusing word is “politics” which, if used as “political sympathies,” is plural. Her politics are nothing to do with me. It is, however, used as a singular noun elsewhere. Politics is a controversial topic; politics was my chosen career.
It is singular most of the time, but not always. When the word refers to a science or a science it is singular. But when the term refers to political activities, it is plural. For example, politics keep leaders of various parties day and night before an election.
It is counsels or counsel?
A few years ago, a columnist wrote, “His various counsels have stressed a strict rather than a broad reading of the Constitution. Is “counsels” good English? The American Heritage Dictionary says it is; other dictionaries say both the singular and plural are “counsel.”
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “a piece of advice.” The dictionary has, however, quoted a sentence with “counsels.”
The counsels of philosophy and injunctions of religion – S Johnson.
Johnson’s use of “counsels” slightly awkward, say a few grammarians. The awkwardness derives from the extreme rarity of the word.
“Counsel” is usually a collective plural when it signifies a body of legal advisers engaged in the direction or conduct of a court case.
The counsel is holding the photograph wrong way up – New Statesman.
Similarly, in 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "They have charged…one of their ablest counsels with the preparation of a memoir to establish this.”
In Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage, Theodore M. Bernstein, consulting editor of the New York Times, writes: Mr Jefferson would have been well advised to use lawyers, attorneys or legal advisers rather than “counsels.”