More on pluralsOctober 3, 2013
Based on a recent writing tip I wrote for my work colleagues.
Following on from my Writing Tip on the plural of ‘Basis of Design’, I’ll share a couple more questions about plurals that I’ve been asked recently.
This one was nice and easy:
Which of the sentences below is correct? Note: The table contains multiple data or functionality that an instrument needs to comply with.
- Table 2–15 detail the requirements for the [XXX].
- Table 2–15 details the requirements for the [XXX].
- Table 2–8, Table 2–9 and Table 2–10 detail the functionality required from the [YYY].
Table 2–8, Table 2–9 and Table 2–10 details the functionality required from the [YYY].
It’s irrelevant what data the table contains – it’s the table that is singular or plural.
- A single table takes a plural verb – so ‘Table 2.15 details…’
- Multiple tables take a singular verb – so ‘Table 2.8, Table 2.9, and Table 2.10 detail…’
A simpler example:
- The jar contains olives.
- The jars contain olives.
The olives are irrelevant – the singular/plural verb (contain/contains) applies to the jar, not the olives.
This one wasn’t so easy…
Which of the following is correct?:
- …pipe stringing and installation is located within the sand dunes system.
- …pipe stringing and installation is located within the sand dunes systems.
- …pipe stringing and installation is located within the sand dune system.
Is the plural on ‘dune’ or ‘system’ or both? I had to think this one through for a while… here are some of my thought processes:
The big problem is how it sounds with that extra ‘s’ on ‘dune’ – it just sounds odd to say ‘sand dunes system’. And ‘sand dunes systems’ sounds even worse — there are just too many ‘s’ sounds!
If you switch it around you’re really talking about ‘the system of sand dunes’, which is a single system made up of more than one sand dune (so ‘dunes’ is plural but ‘system’ is singular). Following that logic, it has to be ‘the sand dunes system’, just like ‘a nest of birds’ (more than one bird but only one nest) becomes ‘a birds nest’, though strictly speaking it would be ‘a birds’ nest’ with a possessive apostrophe after ‘birds’. But if you wrote ‘the sand dunes’ system’ with an apostrophe after ‘dunes’ that would look odd.
Similarly, if you had ‘a system of cards’, would it be ‘a card system’ (preferable) or ‘a cards system’? Or would ‘a system of procedures’ become ‘a procedures system’ (yuck) or ‘a procedure system’ (double yuck)? So there isn’t really much guidance from other examples, which are often contradictory. (Isn’t English fun?… NOT!)
You could always avoid the issue by writing ‘the system of sand dunes’.
But to keep it really simple, why not reword and eliminate some of the problem words? The real question in this example is: Is the word ‘system’ integral to knowing that these activities are carried out in the sand dunes? If not, leave it out. For example: ‘…pipe stringing and installation is located in the sand dunes.’ This variation removes ‘system’ altogether AND makes the phrase easier to read. And notice that I changed ‘within’ to ‘in’ too.
However, the first part of this phrase probably needs work too, and the addition of the word ‘activities’ would help make it clearer. Some alternatives:
- ‘…pipe stringing and installation activities are located in the sand dunes.’
- ‘…pipe stringing and installation activities occur in the sand dunes.’
- ‘…pipe stringing and installation activities are carried out in the sand dunes, away from the shoreline.’ (which implies why they occur in the sand dunes).
Bottom line: Always keep in mind the person reading the document. If the sentence would sound odd to a reader, then go for a plainer, simpler way of stating it by rewording, switching words around, and/or eliminating unnecessary words.
Update: One of the people I sent this to suggested using ‘dunal system’ in place of ‘sand dunes system’ or any variation of it. While that may apply in some situations, if the word ‘system’ isn’t necessary, then ‘dunal system’ isn’t necessary either.