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The use of plural nouns with singular verbs

By Alexander Chagema | Published Mon, April 16th 2018 at 00:00, Updated April 15th 2018 at 19:35 GMT +3

As terse as they normally are, newspaper headlines are designed to get your attention by, as much as possible, summarizing the main body text. Two words in last week’s headline of this column; ‘ghastly’ and ‘accidentally’ were suggestive. Five will get you ten the symbolism was lost on many. Only a few noticed.

In the introductory part of the article, I wrote: “Lately, perhaps because acerbic politics that raise adrenaline levels among combative Kenyans, always on the prowl on social media have (plural verb) and towards the end of the same article, I made the assertion that “politics is not for the faint hearted”.

Although the word ‘politics’ appears in both sentences, a singular verb is assigned to the second one and, indeed, the urging was to use a singular verb after ‘politics’. How do we reconcile the two?  Can we do the same with other nouns like News, Physics, Mathematics and so forth?

If we were to assume ‘politics’ is the plural of ‘politic’, we would be making a ghastly mistake because the word ‘politic’ means any of the following; wise, prudent, well-judged, tactful or diplomatic. These have nothing to do with what we know as politics. Thus, ‘politics’ serves both as plural and singular.

DIFFERENT MEANINGS

Politics is in part a body of beliefs, hence the oft used terminology ‘party ideology’. Not all political parties subscribe to the same ideology. These ideologies hinge on the path a party chooses to follow; socialism, communism or capitalism etcetera. As such, while referring collectively to these beliefs, a plural verb follows the word ‘politics’.

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The use of ‘our’ before ‘acerbic politics’ signaled the leaning towards the plural form; necessitating the plural verb. However, if politics is used to denote the ‘science of governance’, it is assigned a singular verb as earlier shown.

The nouns News, Mathematics, Physics and even countries whose names are in the plural form, namely the United States of America or the Netherlands do not enjoy the same leeway. They are followed by singular verbs. For example; ‘the United States of America is committed to maintaining a cordial relationship with North Korea’.

A reader questioned why, in last week’s column, I used the expression “For far too long” instead of simply writing “For a long time”.

The expression ‘for far too long’ is an idiomatic expression; expressions for which I have developed a penchant.

 Notably, idiomatic expressions retain their original forms. Insertion or omission of some words negates their import. In the introductory part of this column, I have used yet another idiom, ‘five will get you ten’ to mean ‘likelihood’ or ‘possibility’. The origin of this idiom is in the realm of betting, the craze that has taken this country by storm.

EMPHASIS

‘For the longest time’ simply means ‘for a very long time’ and suggests mild ‘surprise’ that whatever it is, should remain the way it is.

 If one writes, ‘For the longest time, the drainage system in Nairobi has remained the way it was in the 1970s despite the exponential population growth’, he will be expressing a fact and showing surprise that things have not changed despite the circumstances that demand change.

Emphasis is therefore on the word ‘very’. While ‘for a long time’ is grammatically correct, it is simply a statement of fact that is limited in scope, for it restricts itself to conveying a specific message.

The same reader questioned why I used the phrase, ‘Social media does not employ’ when media is the plural of medium. An earlier column explained that media can be used in both the plural and singular forms.

 When ‘media’ is used to denote magazines, newspapers, radio, television, and online platforms, it becomes plural, hence the assertion “News media in Kenya are resisting government attempts to limit their constitutional freedom.” “‘The media are important in disseminating information to the public.”

The word ‘media’ becomes singular when referring to a particular communication source. For instance, one can say “Social media is today’s favourite source of information for the young generation.” or “The news media is an easy target of governments uncomfortable with the truth.”

From personal experience, one of the trickiest things in writing is the correct use of the possessive form.

 To forget the apostrophe, or to be tricked by the auto correct on your computer deviates from your intended meaning.