Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Collector's Items

Another lovely day in La-La Land, dearies. Just in case your area, like the Midwest, is enjoying the remarkably non-July-ish weather, I’ll keep this brief so you can skip outside to play.

Our topic for today is the mass noun. No, this isn’t a sermon; we’re talking about noncount nouns, those little words that denote uncountable concepts. These nouns fall into two categories: abstract (trendiness, comfort) and collective (the paparazzi, the staff).

The interesting thing about mass nouns is how they are paired with verbs. In essence, this boils down to location, location, location. In American English, most mass nouns receive the singular treatment, and are paired with a singular verb. The audience was bored by the uninspired offerings of the fashion show. On the other side of the pond, British English allows for singular or plural treatment. The whole family was stunned by Mother’s makeover. Also, the paparazzi were staggeringly rude again.

There are certain mass nouns that are always paired with plural verbs, most notably people and police. While a quick check of any reputable dictionary will give you the scoop on correct usage for your chosen noun, the CMOS offers a simple rule of thumb to consider: a singular verb emphasizes the group; a plural verb emphasizes the individual members.

In the meantime, it’s time to slather on the sunscreen. The ivy is attempting to throttle the big pine tree, which means that a bit of pruning is in order. Enjoy your day, mind your masses, and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style!

Having discovered the joys of pin weaving, the Style Maven is now indulging in the joys of mail-order mass yarn shopping. You can read about her high-fiber diet at The Procraftinator.


  1. I usually have to look them up every time. Calling something a "pair" like a pair of pants or a pair of underwear has always confused me. How on earth did that get started? :)

  2. Succinct discussion makes the point well: a group as one whole, singular verb; individuals in a group, plural verb. This is an important point for writers, so we need to take heed. Very helpful post, Style Maven.

  3. I also have trouble with None of them is/are. I know it's is, them being part of a prepositional phrase, but it always sounds wrong. I've seen many writers use are, and I'm wondering if it has become acceptable.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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