Grammar and writing question(s)

Aren’t I sneaky? My question is implied in my title.

When using the “parenthetical s” to imply the possibility of a plural, how am I supposed to handle verb agreement?

If it matters, for the particular paper I’m writing (professional white paper), I’ve been generally following the Chicago Manual of Style (15th Ed).

Thanks all!

I can’t imagine using a parenthetical s in a formal writing.

Often we eschew the singular for the plural if the number is unknown. If the number is almost always one, use the singular only.

Or so my teacher told us.

This is a question that all who have to write academic or professional papers, articles, etc. have to consider from time to time.

My initial response (indeed, my initial response to myself when this situation crops up!) is the old fallback of avoidance. In other words, I try and express it another way.

However, doing a little “parenthesis search” of my PhD thesis, I found two examples of such usage:

This is, I would say, unproblematic, since a) the definite article may be used with both singular and plural noun forms and b) ‘will’ is invariant (i.e. no singular or plural forms).

Here, on criterion b) we’re okay with the invariant past tense form ‘lay’, but under a) we run into problems. Still, I chose it, I suppose, rather than ‘of a police officer or more than one police officer’, or ‘of one of more police officers’, because it flowed better in the context of the chapter I was writing, which had quite a detective feel to it. Certainly, neither my supervisor not my examiners objected, and being big guns in language one would have expected them to if they had found it exceptional.

I might note too that some people have taken to choosing book titles with this kind of parenthesis, e.g. Emancipation(s) by Ernesto Laclau, though I don’t much care for that kind of thing myself.

As for your actual question(!), I think the practice is to agree with the singular form, thus: ‘I would like to write a letter of appreciation to the person(s) who represents “Cecil”.’ The principle here would be somewhat analogous to the situation in which we write ‘I hear that the Mayor, together with her husband, is coming to dinner’. Note the use in both cases of punctuation to indicate relegation to a lesser status.

I don’t use the parenthetical “s” in writing, but chiefly because technical writers are taught not to. It is one of those seemingly arbitrary standards that other professionals look for when they’re judging your writing.

When, just now, I realized this, I wondered why the idea was invented in the first place. After all, using “(s)” is not that confusing. I decided that it is imprecise and uncommitted. If you really know what you are writing about, you should be able to say how many things you mean. Not knowing is a sign that perhaps you don’t understand the subject as much as you should.

Suppose, though, that you are writing a technical manual about a motorcycle engine. You are presenting the procedure for removing a cover from an assembly. You know that in some model years one bolt was used, while in other years two were used.

You could write “If you see one bolt, remove it. If you see two bolts, remove them.”, but that seems a bit clunky to me. I would write “Remove the bolt or bolts from the cover; some model years used one bolt, while others used two.” You might then write

“The bolt or bolts have Allen heads.”

In other words, if you must use this type of construction, do not use parenthetical s, and use a plural verb. You will be understood.


Surely you’d write ‘The bolts have Allen heads’ in a situation like this?

One difference between your example (the nuts and bolts sorld of mechanics) and the social scientific world is the lack of certainty that pervades the first. I guess this is why recourse to parentheses is sometimes a useful strategy.

No, I’d write what I wrote. I’d want to make clear that the reader might only see one bolt.

You wrote:

I would write:
…the danger is that the dominant group or groups will eventually exercise hegemony ‘based upon alliances, the incorporation of subordinate groups, and the generation of consent’ about which…

but that’s just me.

I see that, but my point is that since all the bolts in question have Allen heads, ‘the bolts have Allen heads’ having a generic reference would do the job fine without ambiguity.

Thanks the help guys!

It doesn’t do the job fine because there’s bound to be someone (like me) that’s going to spend an hour looking where the other bolts are.

Saying “the bolts have Allen heads” is factually true, but it is in fact misleading if there may be only one bolt (especially if it’s a technical manual).

I forgot that this came after the sentence that explained there may be one or two bolts, so strike this comment.

But I would still stand by what 633squadron said because it makes it clear what is there. And again, with a technical manual, being very precise is something that is very useful.

It seems to me that when we read the phrase aloud, we get the answer.

“The person(s) who committed this crime are in trouble,” it should say, because when we read that aloud, we say “The person or persons who committed this crime.” When a compound subject is joined by “or,” the verb agrees with the part of the subject closest to the verb.