Thursday, January 24, 2008

Writing Tips - Singular or Plural?

Writers, especially technical writers, often have to contend with writing about concepts or things which, from the reader's perspective, might equally be singular or plural: "Open the Printer window to check the pending print job." (Jobs?)

In the past, one way of dealing with this conundrum was to show the possible alternatives in parentheses: job(s). But what happens if the word has an irregular plural form? For example, penny [penny(ies)?] or (in the mathematical sense) index [index(ices)?]. And what happens to accompanying verbs and pronouns? For example: "The pending print job(s) is(are) shown in the order that it(they) was(were) sent to the queue." (!?)

Possible Retreats
Traps such as those described above have placed the parenthesis method of marking plurals into considerable disfavour. The best solution to the problem of "one or many?" is to write around it. Here are some possible alternatives:

  1. Use the plural (the singular is assumed). This is the preferable alternative and the one most likely to work in very constrained formats, such as tables and charts. For example:

    The Printer window shows your pending print jobs.
    (The number of jobs is really immaterial. The reader will know whether one job or many jobs are at issue.)

  2. To emphasize the dual possibility, use or and both versions of the noun. For example:

    NIVA will be hosting the representative or representatives from each company.

    (The number is still immaterial, but you emphasize the possibility that one or several can attend.)

  3. To emphasize the "many" possibility, use one or more ... (or a similar phrase). Notice that the noun agrees with the closer (plural) adjective, and the verb, in turn, agrees with the noun. For example:
One or more representatives from each company are expected.
(Numbers are uncertain, and you emphasize the fact that several might attend from each company.)

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