What Does "Singular" Mean in Grammar?

The word "singular" denotes a quantity of one. "Singular" contrasts with plural, which denotes more than one. For example:
  • One dolphin and three sharks
  • (The word "dolphin" is singular, but "sharks" is plural. More specifically, the word "shark" is a singular noun, and the word "sharks" is a plural noun.)
  • She sings, and we dance.
  • ("She" is a singular pronoun, and "sings" is a singular verb. "We" is a plural pronoun, and "dance" is a plural verb.)

Table of Contents

  • The Singular and Plural Forms of Nouns
  • Agreement in Number (Singular or Plural)
  • Pronouns Can be Singular, Plural...or Either
  • Why Understanding "Singular" Is Important
  • Test Time!
singular English grammar
The terms "singular" and "plural" are values of the grammatical category of number.

The Singular and Plural Forms of Nouns

Most nouns have singular and plural forms. Nouns with singular and plural forms (e.g., shark/sharks, woman/women) are known as a countable nouns.

Countable nouns contrast with a non-countable nouns. Non-countable nouns (e.g., "honesty," "oxygen") are always singular. They do not have a plural forms.

Agreement in Number (Singular or Plural)

When studying grammar, you often encounter the term "agree in number." In English, lots of constructions must agree in number. For example:

(1) A singular subject must have a singular verb, and a plural subject must have a plural verb.

  • She is leaving. correct tick
  • ("She" is a singular subject, and "is leaving" is a singular verb.)
  • The mouse has eaten our muffins. correct tick
  • ("The mouse" is a singular subject, and "has eaten" is a singular verb.)
  • The rats have chewed the cable. correct tick
  • ("The rats" is a plural subject, and "have chewed" is a plural verb.)
Read more about subject-verb agreement.

(2) A demonstrative determiner ("this," "that," "these," and "those") must agree in number with the noun it modifies.

  • This feedback is welcome. correct tick
  • ("This" is a singular determiner, and "feedback" is a singular noun.)
  • These notes are unhelpful. correct tick
  • ("These" is a plural determiner, and "notes" is a plural noun.)
NB: Demonstrative determiners are called "demonstrative adjectives" in traditional grammar. Read more about demonstrative determiners.

(3) A possessive determiner ("my," "your," "his," "her," "its," "our," and "their") must agree in number and gender with the noun it represents.

  • Sarah shook her fist. correct tick
  • (The possessive determiner "her" probably refers to Sarah, but it could feasible refer to another female individual.)
  • We took their weapons. correct tick
  • (The possessive determiner "their" refers to an unnamed group of people.)
NB: Possessive determiners are called "possessive adjectives" in traditional grammar. Read more about possessive determiners.

Pronouns Can be Singular, Plural...or Either

In English, some pronouns are always singular (e.g., "she," "it," "this"), and some are always plural (e.g., "they," "we," "those"). Some pronouns can be singular or plural. Here is a list of the most common pronouns showing whether each is singular, plural, or either.
Pronoun Type: Personal Pronouns
Singular PronounsPlural PronounsExample
I/Me-I am happy.
YouYouYou are happy.
You are happy.
He/Him-He is happy.
She/Her-She is happy.
It-It is happy.
-We/UsWe are happy.
-They/ThemThey are happy.
Pronoun Type: Intensive Pronouns and Reflexive Pronouns
Singular PronounsPlural PronounsExample
Myself-I am looking at myself.
Yourself-You are looking at yourself.
Himself-He is looking at himself.
Herself-She is looking at herself.
Itself-It is looking at itself.
-OurselvesWe are looking at ourselves.
-YourselvesYou are looking at yourselves.
-ThemselvesThey are looking at themselves.
Pronoun Type: Interrogative Pronouns
Singular PronounsPlural PronounsExample
Who/WhomWho/WhomWho is he?
Who are they?
WhoseWhoseWhose is it?
Whose are they?
WhatWhatWhat is it?
What are they?
WhichWhichWhich is it?
Which are they?
Pronoun Type: Demonstrative Pronouns
Singular PronounsPlural PronounsExample
That-That is heavy.
This-This is heavy.
-ThoseThose are heavy.
-TheseThese are heavy.
Pronoun Type: Relative Pronouns
Singular PronounsPlural PronounsExample
Who/WhomWho/WhomThe man who is looking at the car...
The men who are looking at the car...
ThatThatThe dog that is barking...
The dogs that are barking...
WhichWhichThe car which is broken...
The cars which are broken...
Pronoun Type: Indefinite Pronouns
Singular PronounsPlural PronounsExample
AllAllAll is available.
All are available.
AnyAnyAny is available.
Any are available.
Anyone-Anyone is available.
Anything-Anything is available.
Each-Each is available.
Everybody-Everybody is available.
Everyone-Everyone is available.
Everything-Everything is available.
- FewFew are available.
- ManyMany are available.
Nobody-Nobody is available.
NoneNoneNone is available
None are available.
-SeveralSeveral are available.
SomeSomeSome is available.
Some are available.
Somebody-Somebody is available.
Someone-Someone is available.

Why Understanding "Singular" Is Important

If you're learning or teaching English, then understanding that nouns, verbs, determiners, and pronouns must match in number is a fundamental point. Fortunately, native English speakers ensure "number agreement" between the different parts of speech on autopilot, i.e., without giving the grammar a second thought. There are, however, a few traps that can lead to writers failing to ensure "number agreement."

Here are five issues related to grammatical number that cause problems for writers.

(Issue 1) Don't make the wrong noun agree with the verb.

In a construction like "a box of magazines," the verb must agree with the head noun (i.e., "box") not "magazines." For example:
  • A list of candidates have been published. wrong cross
  • (It should be "has." The verb should agree with "list," which is singular.)

(Issue 2) Treat "either" and "neither" as singular.

Even though they seem to refer to two things, "either" and "neither" are singular.
  • Either of the players are available. wrong cross
  • (It should be "is." "Either" is singular.)
Read more about "either" and "neither."

(Issue 3) Treat "each of" as singular.

"Each" is singular. Be careful not to treat it as plural when it appears in a term like "each of them" or "each of the workers."
  • Each of my garments is something special in itself. correct tick (Fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy)
  • Each of us bears his own Hell. correct tick (Roman poet Virgil)

(Issue 4) Be aware that collective nouns can be singular or plural.

Nouns that represent groups (called collective nouns) can be treated as singular or plural, depending on the sense of the sentence. For example:
  • The shoal was moving north. correct tick
  • (The collective noun "shoal" is treated as singular because it is considered as one entity.)
  • The shoal were darting in all directions. correct tick
  • (Here, "shoal" is treated as plural because the focus is on the individuals.)
As a rule, try to keep your collective nouns as singular. However, if the focus is strongly on the individuals, have the confidence to go plural. Read more about treating collective nouns as singular or plural.

(Issue 5) Be aware that terms like "all of" and "some of" can be singular or plural.

"All of," "any of," "more of," "most of," and "some of" are singular when they precede something singular but plural when they precede something plural.
  • Most of the story is true. correct tick
  • ("Most" is singular because it precedes "story," which is singular.)
  • Most of the people are honest. correct tick
  • ("Most" is plural because it precedes "people," which is plural.)

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.