"Dollars On Screen" by Stuart Miles

Singular or plural–which is right for $5 million?

It’s not always easy to tell whether a noun is singular or plural. Take this example “$5 million was/were enough.”

When I informally polled some writer friends, four out of five voted for “was.” That sounds right to me, too.

The word “dollars” is plural, but “$5 million” becomes what grammarians call a collective noun.

Think of it this way, a portfolio management team is made up of people, but the team is a single entity so you say “The team was” instead of “The team were.”

On collective nouns, a Grammar Girl blog post written by Bonnie Trenga (but no longer available online) said the following:

Inanimate objects, such as “sugar” or “furniture,” are called mass nouns or uncountable nouns, and are always singular. So you would say, “This sugar is very sweet” or “My furniture is too old.” You can’t say, “This sugar are” or “My furniture are.” If you want to talk about individual grains of sugar or individual pieces of furniture, then you have to say something like “Eight grains of sugar were found” or “These pieces of furniture are new.”

However, as one of my friends and the Grammar Girl blog pointed out, the British treat collective nouns differently. They combine them with plural verbs. No wonder some of us are confused!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Note: This post was updated on Nov. 30, 2023.

2 replies
  1. Dave Dyer
    Dave Dyer says:

    For a good example of how mass nouns and count nouns are treated differently in other countries, listen to a weather broadcast next time you are in Canada. They will say something like, “There will be cloud this afternoon” where we would say, “There will be clouds this afternoon.” We think it is a count noun and they treat it as a mass noun.

  2. Susan Weiner, CFA
    Susan Weiner, CFA says:

    Thank you for the example!
    I have Canadian relatives so I’ve noticed that sometimes they follow British practices and sometimes they follow the same practices that I do.

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