"The Help" is about several women. If the Help is plural, why do we use "is"?


That's easy; that sentence refers to the novel. But what if we were talking about the actual people coming to aid us? Would we properly use "is" or "are"?


This all came up because we literary ladies do love cats, and I recently remarked that Friskies is Doritos for cats. Or, Friskies are Doritos for cats? A pal wrote back that for cats, Friskies is crack. Or Friskies are crack? Friskies is a brand name; the Help is either a mass or collective noun, and examination of both is instructive.


Kathryn Stockett's addictive novel The Help is about southerners' complex relationship to the African American women who work in their homes, raise their children, and are entirely other than employees. "The help" refers to a group of women, several individuals, just like a team.


So do we use a plural or a singular verb when we say, with delight, "The help are going be here soon to set up the party!" or "The help is going to be here soon!"


Most folks never think of this stuff: They avoid the problem by saying "The help will be here soon!" But we grammar folks start to wonder: Are "help" and "team" collective nouns or mass nouns? Count nouns? HELP!


Count nouns can be counted: one team, two teams, one jury, two juries. Can we count "help"? One help, two helps. . . um, not so much. True collective nouns are a division of count nouns; they refer to a group of individuals, and they can take either a singular or plural verb, depending on whether the verb refers to their acting as a unit or as discrete individuals, and whether the speaker is American- or British-influenced. Consider "the jury": 12 individuals. Looking at whether we say "the jury is" or "the jury are" is instructive.


In the USA, the preference is to treat these kinds of count nouns, such as "jury," as singular. We say "the jury is coming in," "the jury is split," "the jury hasn't decided yet." In Great Britain and areas of the world where British English rules, either singular or plural verbs are used. Consider "The family is divided about what to do about the pig" and "The family are fighting over the pig." Of course, "The family members are fighting over the pig" is always a graceful option.


Mass nouns are words such as "jam," "milk," and "economics"; although "jam" can't be divided into separate individuals of jam, we will deal with mass nouns separately. Collective nouns include those wonderful words of venery (originally from hunting) such as "gaggle of geese," "pride of lions," and the beautiful "exaltation of larks." A nice list can be found here, titled "Venereal Terms." (watch out, firewall!)


And what about that cat crack, Friskies? It's a brand name, and the welcome chaos of idiom breaks loose when we deal with those. Friskies is crack for cats. Doritos are evil. And Cheetos?


What's your thorniest singular/plural question? Are Cheetos your favorite, or Is Cheetos the end of civilized dining? Let us be the help!




Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.


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