One of the sentences that came up in my Dutch lessons today was “De jeugd van vandaag is onze toekomst”, which is translated as “The youth of today are our future” (emphasis added).

In Dutch de jeugd (the youth) is singular and is accompanied by a singular form of the verb, is, while in English the youth are seen as a collection of people, so are plural. You could argue that since the youth is singular in English, so you should say the youth is rather than the youth are, but that sounds strange to me.

Other examples of this phenomenon include:

  • Het personeel is laat = The staff are late
  • Het team is succesvol = The team are/is successful
  • De meerderheid is er tegen = The majority are/is against it
  • De raad is nutteloos = The council are/is useless
  • De familie is verenigd = The family are/is united
  • Amazon is een enorm bedrijf = Amazon are/is a huge company

Apparently in American English it is common to use the singular with collective nouns like team and family, while in British English plurals are more commonly used.

If you see a company or a group of people like a team as a single entity, then it makes sense to use the singular form of the verb, but if you see them as a group of people, then the plural form makes more sense.

Would you use the singular or plural in the above examples?

Are there differences in usage like this in other languages?

More information about this:

How about data? In scientific and financial papers it is often accompanied by a plural verb – the data are inconclusive, for example, but in everyday usage it is usually treated as singular – the data is out of date. Pedants might argue that data, like agenda, is plural, and their singular forms should be datum and agendum. While this is true in Latin, its not how these words are commonly used, at least since the 1940s. More discussion on this.

Data was borrowed from Latin data, the plural of datum (that is given), the past participle of (I give) [source].

Would you say a box of lego or a box of legos? How about a lego or a piece of lego? To my ears legos sounds strange, even though I know plenty of people use it.

5 thoughts on “Plurality

  1. Simon, for me, “Legos” doesn’t sound the least bit strange. Legos are small toy objects with pegs and holes that interconnect, so that children can build things with them. I would call a single one of them a “Lego piece” or a “Lego part”. I never really had a problem with that.

    As for “data”, the link you provided has a lot of good information. The way I see it, it’s a question of “things” vs. “stuff”. Current scientific literature treats “data” like “things”, so that “the data are accurate”. But, I believe the computer era in particular has changed the conception of what “data” means, because there is just so much of it. In computer terms, a “bit” is the smallest possible piece of information, since it can only be either 0 or 1, and with that understanding, a “bit” must be a “datum” (singular) and everything else is “data” (plural).

    Computer science informs us that information can be abstracted, processed, summarized, interpreted, etc. etc. We can do things like “drill down” in a data base or do “deep searches” in masses of information trying to find something. Data (characters or bytes) used to be measured in thousands (K) then millions (megabytes) then billions (gigabytes) then trillions (terabytes) and it just gets bigger and bigger. All those piles of characters or bytes are a bunch of “stuff”. They HAVE to be, because there is simply too much of it to deal with it on an individual basis. If you had to do that, you’d never finish searching it all in your lifetime trying to find the answer to a query.

    Finally, can someone PLEASE say that after 2,000 years, we DON’T have to pluralize words the way that soldiers of the Roman Empire did? In the case of “data”, if we can accept that it signifies “stuff” rather than “things”, there is no need to pluralize it, any more than you would say “stuffs”. It’s “kinds of data” and “kinds of stuff”. Same thing. For all intents and purposes, there is only one word, “data”, and “datum” is an archaic term from ancient Latin that has no place in the English language (and ought to be banished).

  2. In Ancient Greek, the neuter plural (in -a in the nominative and accusative cases) normally took singular agreement. This came from an earlier collective sense reconstructed back to Proto-Indo-European *eh₂ (quite likely pronounced *[aχ] and then later *[aħ], according to several Indo-Europeanists), which appears to have derived from an even earlier more general “generic” sense; although there is no consensus so far on exactly how this took place, it is generally agreed that the widespread -a feminine ending is ultimately to be traced back to the same collective suffix.

    So when you go far enough back, these collectives were a kind of generic referring to a group of entities seen as non-animate, as distinct from the (animate) plural which in the nominative ended in *-s.

  3. An additional wrinkle in talking about teams in American English is that when using the team name, if it is plural, then we do use plural forms.

    “the team won its third game”
    “the Portland Trailblazers won their third game”
    But: “Portland won its third game”

    The LEGO fan in my household says “box of LEGO” and “box of LEGOs” both sound correct. (The LEGO fan is very particular about the all-caps spelling, though.)

  4. Yes, the American usages are inconsistent. We would indeed say, “The youth of today are our future.” But also “The company is the future of this town.”

  5. In Dutch, Lego is never used in the plural (as far as I’m aware): you’d either say: Ik speel met Lego “I’m playing with Lego” or Ik speel met Legosteentjes “I’m playing with Lego bricks.”

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