Subject–Verb Agreement: Non-Count Nouns That End in “S”

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Almost all English grammar rules have exceptions that can cause our students endless confusion. That’s why, whenever an exception pops up during class, I like to point it out to refresh my students’ memories. A common source of confusion is subject–verb agreement, particularly when it pertains to non-count nouns that end in “s.” Some of these nouns are common in speaking and writing, and you can bet they often appear on tests such as the TOEIC. Here are some of the worst offenders:

1. NEWS

I often remind my students that news is non-count…we can’t say “one new, two news.” Think of news as information or a collection of stories. Newsalways takes a singular verb, like any non-count noun would.

Examples:

  • The news was really interesting last night.
  • No news is good news.

2. CUSTOMS

The non-count noun customs is defined as the agency that collects duties or tolls on imports or exports. (Going through customs at the airport is a common example.) Customs always takes a singular verb in this case. Note that this word is not to be confused with the count noun custom, which is defined as a tradition or common practice. (Taking off your shoes when you enter someone’s house is a good example of a Canadian custom.) In this case, custom takes a singular verb, while customs takes a plural verb.

Examples:

  • Meaning 1 (non-count noun): Customs is intimidating. I always get nervous when I have to talk to the customs agent at the airport.
  • Meaning 2 (count noun): Japanese customs fascinate me. For example, their tea ceremony custom is intricate and beautiful.

3. SCHOOL SUBJECTS

School subjects are also non-count nouns since they represent a collective field of study. They take a singular verb. Some subjects don’t end in “s” (and therefore aren’t confusing), such as psychologychemistry, or English. But some end in “s” even though they take a singular verb, such as physicsmathematics, etc.

Examples:

  • Physics is difficult for me. I’m failing that class.
  • Statistics was a fun course. I enjoyed learning how to analyze survey results.
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