Engels: enkel- of meervoud?

Most people learn about some of the English language’s ‘suprising’ plural nouns at school – words like trousers, glasses or scissors. For English speakers, these things come in pairs and are thus plural (even when the word pair is omitted).

Is or are? Some tips on singular and plural in English

  • Be careful, those scissors are very sharp! (… die schaar is heel scherp!)
    Of course, the ‘s’ on the end of words like scissors provides a helpful reminder of this. However, some of the rules about when to use a singular or a plural verb are less well known, and can be quite different in English and Dutch. Let’s look at a few examples where confusion can arise.
  • Meer dan de helft van de sollicitanten is onder de dertig.
    In Dutch, the verb is singular – is – because the word helft is singular. In English, by contrast, we view it differently.
    More than half the applicants are under thirty.

Because there is more than one applicant, we use a plural verb (are). You can see the same principle in the following sentences.

  • 35% van de docenten is ontevreden met het assortiment van de kantine.
    35% of teachers are dissatisfied with the food available in the canteen.
  • Het merendeel van zijn schilderijen is verdwenen en nooit meer teruggevonden.
    The majority of his paintings disappeared and were never found again.

‘Collective nouns’ are a similar source of confusion. Collective nouns are nouns which are made up of more than one member (usually groups of people) such as audience, committee, company, family, team, the government, the army etc. The same applies to named companies or businesses. In Dutch, all these take a singular verb because they are – grammatically – singular. In English, however, a plural verb can also be used.

  • The government is/are planning to increase taxes.
    De regering is van plan om de belasting te verhogen.
  • The team are/is proud of their/its performance.
    Het team is trots op zijn prestatie.
  • Shell has/have announced a programme for sustainable energy.
    Shell heeft een programma voor duurzame energie aangekondigd.
  • Was/Were your family at the party too?
    Was jouw familie ook op het feest?

In fact, there are some singular nouns in English which practically always take a plural verb, such as police or staff.

  • Staff are very enthusiastic about the project.
    Medewerkers zijn heel enthousiast over het project.
  • The police are looking for two suspects in connection with this incident.
    De politie zoekt twee verdachten in verband met dit incident.

Sports teams, when referred to by name, also take a plural verb, even though they are grammatically singular.

  • Oxford have won the boat race again.
    Oxford heeft de roeiwedstrijd opnieuw gewonnen.
  • Spain were determined to fight back in the second half.
    Spanje was vastberaden om in de tweede helft terug te komen.

One final point concerns English nouns which look like plural nouns, but which behave like singular nouns, such as economics, athletics, politics, mathematicsetc. We should also include in this group some other nouns where mistakes often occur: series, species. These are singular nouns (but the plural forms are identical).

  • That’s an endangered species. There are over 200 species of bird on the island.
    Het is een bedreigde diersoort. Er zijn meer dan 200 vogelsoorten op het eiland.
  • There’s going to be a new series this year. I really loved the last three series!
    Dit jaar komt er een nieuw seizoen uit. De laatste drie seizoenen vond ik geweldig!


  • Met dank aan Taalcentrum-VU voor het beschikbaar stellen van deze tips. Het Taalcentrum-VU is een zelfstandig taal- en trainingsbureau dat opereert vanuit de Vrije Universiteit en vertalingen, taal- en communicatietrainingen en tekstredactie verzorgt voor overheid en bedrijfsleven.

 
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