Grammar Tip – Most Is or Most Are

Deane’s question: “Is it okay to write ‘Most of the population speaks English.’ Or should it be ‘Most of the population speak English.’

BizWritingTip response: This question deals with subject and verb agreement and collective nouns.

Words such as all, none, any, some, more and most are considered pronouns. The verb following may be singular or plural depending on the noun these pronouns represent. (The noun usually shows in the of phrase that follows.)

Examples

None of us are going to the conference. (The “of us” phrase makes the pronoun and verb plural.)

Some of the report was inaccurate. (The “of the report” makes the pronoun and verb singular.)

Most of the people are available. (The word “people” is always treated as plural.)

However, the word “population” may be treated as a single or as a plural noun. If the writer is using it in the sense of a whole unit (a collective noun), the word and the following verb are singular.

Example

The population speaks English. (Everyone does.)

But when you place most of in front of “population,” you are no longer referring to a whole unit. Therefore, the word and the following verb are plural.

Example

Most of the population speak English.

  • Jaya

    Thank you for the tips. It certainly helps to improve my writing skills.

    Jaya, Ontario Government

  • Amatullah Umrani

    “None [of us] are going to the conference” is incorrect. None means “not one” and is singular. Whatever follows a preposition is part of the “prepositional phrase”, helping clarify the subject, but not the subject. Hence, none is, or none of us is correct. For “most”, your explanation is correct because you may take “most” as one group or separately. Therefore you need the prepositional phrase or preceding sentence to know how many you are referring to, to determine if plural or singular.

    • “None” can be singular or plural in construction. It can mean “none one” or “not any.”

      Grammar Girl talks about this here:
      http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/none-or-none-are

      It is also verified by dictionary entries:
      https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/none
      https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/none

      • Amatullah Umrani

        “Not one” means zero. “Not any” means zero; zero is obviously not plural. Consequently, I must continue to maintain that none is singular.

        • I see your logic there, but every source says otherwise. From the Chicago Manual of Style, p. 290: “[None] may take either a singular or a plural verb. A guideline: if it is followed by a singular noun, treat it as a singular; if by a plural noun, treat it as a plural.”

          “Zero” is tricky because it can also take a plural sense: “Zero people are coming.” “She made zero appearances last year.”

          I get that this seems illogical, but it’s grammatically okay, the same way that it’s okay to split infinitives or end a sentence with a preposition. These are just grammar myths.

          • Amatullah Umrani

            In your example, “zero” is an adjective, describing the noun–subject following it. Your examples are correct in grammar, but based upon the plural subject, not the zero.

          • You’re right. I used it as an adjective because, as far as I am aware, “zero” is not used as a noun in this way. It’s used as a noun to refer to the number itself, but not as an amount of something else. You wouldn’t say, “Zero is going.” (maybe you would, but I think if you were to use “zero,” it is more natural to say “Zero are going,” where “zero” is still acting like an adjective, but you drop the subject because it is understood.) This is mostly speculation, though. Maybe “zero” isn’t a perfect stand-in because it is not a pronoun like “none.”

            I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. Thanks for the conversation!