Plurality in English can be a pretty confusing topic. Knowing the rules is a hard feat, from making sure you are using the right plural form to addressing singular objects. One point of contention is in words like “public.” Is it plural or singular? Words like this act as though you are referring to a singular entity. However, in reality, it is a large group of many things.
Look at the following sentence, for example:
“The public needs to understand their rights and their responsibilities.”
This sentence alone just shows how complex plurality rules can be. The public is referred to as a singular entity within the sentence, but plural words like “their” are also used.
One interesting facet of English is collective nouns. These nouns describe a single thing made up of many constituent parts. For example, “public” is a common collective noun. Some other examples of common collective nouns include:
In a sense, collective nouns are technically plural and singular simultaneously. Due to this interesting characteristic, they often confuse many English learners.
The only time collective nouns have simple rules comes when the noun refers to a group of inanimate objects such as “cutlery.” In these cases, the collective noun can always be singular.
British And American Differences
The correct form gets a little more complicated if your collective noun refers to something living. The “right” answer depends on what context you are using it in and if you are used to British or American English.
Related: British vs. US Spellings
In British English, collective nouns tend to have plural or singular verbs, pronouns, or nouns. In contrast, American English usually is more rigid and prefers to refer to collective pronouns as mostly singular. While this rule is often followed, you can sometimes find instances of American English where they are referred to plurally.
Focus On The Context
As for context, you should focus on the sentence’s collective noun’s function. In other words, keep an eye on if the group of individuals it describes is a single unit or more independent. If the noun has more independent characters, you can use plural verbs. Otherwise, the singular form is probably the best.
- The committee has passed a new bill.
- The government is now set up.
- The council is debating the situation.
- The school board is planning to share their plans tomorrow.
Look To Other Resources
Another interesting thing is that many different publications and writing styles treat collective nouns differently. For instance, some styles, such as The Economist have pretty strict rules, while others, such as The Guardian, are more loosely defined. If you are working with a specific style, referring to them for specific rules about collective nouns could be helpful.
Another great resource to check if you are using your nouns correctly is a dictionary. Dictionaries usually have clear-cut answers for if a collective noun should be singular or plural. Again, there will be differences between British and American dictionaries, so keep an eye out for that distinction.
To sum up, collective nouns are tricky. While they seem like a great way to refer to abstract entities, they often confuse writers about their singularity (or plurality).
To answer the main question, “public” can technically both be used plurally and singularly. When referring to the “public,” it usually is best to start as singular. You may want to refer to it as plural. However, if you are talking about specific actions “the public” is doing.
Additionally, British English speakers use this plural style more often, whereas American writers usually stick to singular. If you are ever nervous about referring to words such as “public” in the wrong forum, you can always swap in others such as “people,” which are more straightforward in their plurality.
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