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FIGHTING A LOSING BATTLE

Were some of the uniformed men stirring up disorder in eastern Ukraine Russian commandos? No, said the Kremlin. Oh no? Yet at one time that denial could only have been the plain truth: around 1900, say, commando meant a military expedition or militia — typically, Boer guerrillas fighting British troops in South Africa — not an individual member thereof. Not till World War II did the word, once a collective noun like crowd or audience, become a singular one.

A few words are now taking an even bigger leap. To pedants (and me), data and media are clearly plural nouns, born of the Latin neuter plural in — a. But both are now often used as collective nouns with a verb in the singular: the data is unequivocal, the media always distorts, for example. Strata has escaped that misuse, so far, only because what interests geologists is the difference between one stratum of soil or rock and others, not the strata collectively.

In contrast, phenomena, born of the Greek neuter plural, “things appearing”, is heading still further astray: I’ve met it misused not even as a collective noun but a simple singular, a phenomena. I’ve yet to meet a plural, phenomenas, but I expect to. And agenda, once Latin, “things-to-be-done”, long ago went the whole way, being now used — correctly — as a singular, with an English-style plural, agendas.

Genuine collective nouns —such words as the group, audience, crowd, team, government, cabinet, workforce, flock or herd — are another matter: use is or are after them, singular verb or plural, as you please. But note that it must be the group, not a group or an audience; after a or an always use a singular verb.

Uglier things

Nor is “as you please” entirely true. You must say the cabinet are wise men, or are clowns, those being plural nouns; but you can choose either is or are a bunch of fools. I opt for the government is planning (or is split), not are, since in theory it’s a unit. And I’d certainly say the platoon is ready for inspection, since it will be inspected as a body; but I’d say the platoon are in a bolshie mood, if I meant some or most of its soldiers, as individuals, not the whole lot. And I’d always follow the majority, in the sense of “most of them”, with are.

But don’t fuss about such niceties. Sport has one of its own. Americans give a team is, unless its name is a plural, such as Red Sox. Britons, like Indians, give the team are, but the institution is. Thus Chelsea are a fine side, but Chelsea is a rich club.

Away from collective nouns, if a noun’s singular and plural are identical the word of course takes is or are, as appropriate: salmon are pink-fleshed; a huge salmon has broken my line. But there’s no free choice: politics is a rough game; the politics of Gujarat are rougher still. There is also one usage in which a visibly plural noun gets a singular verb: for example, 50 kilos is a heavy load or five trips to Australia means a lot of airmiles. That’s because we see the 50 kilos or the five trips as a unit. There needn’t be any numbers: sea-water and beer is an odd mixture — yet sea-water and beer are seldom mixed. Most of these singular/plural usages are perfectly respectable. Not so one rapidly spreading misuse: that of less for fewer. For example, more planes, fewer trains, OK; more planes, less trains, not OK. So at least grammarians think, and I do. But plenty of people now speak like this, and what they mean is clear. I suspect this battle is already lost.

Maybe I should stick to fighting uglier things. As I revised this article, my eyes lit upon a local paper’s proposal of a “free-speech charter” for county councillors; to which one of these had objected that they must not be dictated to by “a non-elected local media”. Sentiment OK-ish, vocabulary yuck. How long till medias arrives? In French it already has.