ESL Academic Writing. Academic Words That Can Never Be Plural

ESL writers—congratulations for learning English as a second language! This is a very hard language for non-native speakers to learn, so after all your hard work and progress—well done! But you’ve still probably noticed that even when you understand basic English grammar, most rules seem to have exceptions, so the language just keeps being difficult. Nobody would blame you if you gave up and stopped trying to master English at all.

But you can’t really do that, can you? If you’re an academic writer, you could stunt or even kill your academic career if you don’t write in English, because it’s still a dominant language of research and scholarship all over the world. So you need to keep learning and hope you can learn to understand the exceptions as well as the rules themselves.

In this post, I want to discuss one kind of exception that is a bit different from others. These types of words occur all the time in academic writing, so you need to be aware of them; it is too easy to use them incorrectly.

Keep the following words in mind, because we’ll come back to them after a reminder about the grammar behind them:

  • Research
  • Literature
  • Advice
  • Equipment
  • Information
  • Knowledge
  • Staff

How is a box the same as your research?

Making Plural Words

What is the basic English rule about forming a plural word (i.e., showing that you don’t have just one thing but have two or more things)? It’s deceptively simple: to create a plural, you just add “s” at the end of a singular word, or you add “es” if that word already ends in “s” (or in “ch” or “sh” or “x”). So you start with one book, but it becomes five books when you add a few more. You put on a watch, but you might own several watches. Like I said—simple, right?

Except…here come the exceptions. What if you are talking to one man, and then three other men join you? Or you see one goose flying overhead, followed by two other geese? These words form plurals by changing elements inside the words themselves. And then you have categories of words that add an ending to make them plural, but it’s not “s” or “es.” So you might teach one child, but you actually have four children. And instead of having one ox, you have three oxen. Then you have words that don’t change at all, even for plurals—like one sheep and five sheep or one moose and three other moose.

If you’re an ESL writer, all these different types of plurals must make you despair sometimes. But when you look back at the words in our earlier bullet list, you must be glad that they, at least, are the types of words to which you can simply add the standard “s” or “es” to make them plural.

Except that they are not. Sorry. Let’s keep reading.

Collective Nouns

There is a distinct type of English word that is sort of plural, but sort of not-plural. It’s called a collective noun. You’ll remember that a noun names an object, an idea, a person, or a place. A collective noun names a single group or a single collection. But this group or collection functions like a box or container that is full of several other objects, ideas, persons, or places.

Look at a word like herd. A herd might contain one hundred goats, but it is still one single herd. The herd is essentially the single “container” that holds all those goats. So when the herd performs some kind of action, the verb used with that word is singular, not plural. For example, “The herd moves closer to the barn at night” rather than “The herd move closer to the barn.” (Note: in UK English, a collective noun can sometimes use a plural verb if the noun contains several humans and the humans are performing some form of action: e.g., “The committee think this way” rather than “The committee thinks.” But in US and Canadian English, the collective noun almost always performs an action with a singular verb.)

But surely you can have more than one herd? A farmer can have two different herds of cattle, with each herd grazing on a different part of the land. That means that even though herd is a collective noun, it can still be pluralized if you have two (or more) such collections of animals.

But words like research or advice are a specialized subset of the set of collective nouns. These words function like other collective nouns except in one way—they are not pluralized.

Always Singular

If research and advice are collective nouns, doesn’t that mean that you can talk about researches or advices too? Unfortunately, it does not. And this is where it becomes important for an academic writer to use such words correctly, because many of these specific words are used regularly in articles and papers.

You can speak of a scientist’s research, but you can never speak of the scientist’s researches, no matter how many different studies that person has done. The word research just keeps expanding to contain all the questionnaires or calculations or interviews or studies or field data or test results that form part of the person’s total work. So everything the academic person does for their entire life is their research—singular.

This is why you can write a paper and say either “This research shows…” or “This study shows…” Everything in that study is part of the total body of research, so you can either use the word that refers only to that one study or use the larger word that places that study in the larger body of research. But you can’t say “These researches show…,” because you can’t conduct “three researches.” When you start looking at individual works that are part of the person’s whole body of research, you must use words like “study” or “test.” Then you can conduct “three studies,” which are all part of the research as a whole. But research stays a singular word at all times.

The same thing applies to literature—it is the entire body of written work that has ever been completed on a subject or in a genre. So when you write your paper and do your literature search, you are not searching the literatures. You are searching the entire body of written work on your subject—all the written things contained in that one single “box,” which is called the literature.

The same thing applies to all the words in our bullet list, above. Let’s look at them again now and see some examples of how they work correctly.

  • Research: I do a lot of research, but I do three studies (not researches).
  • Literature: I search all the literature (but not the literatures).
  • Advice: I give a lot of advice, or I give several pieces of advice. (But I never give advices.)
  • Equipment: I use a lot of equipment in the lab, and I use several pieces of equipment. (But I don’t use several equipments.)
  • Information: I acquire much information or several pieces or items of information. (But I don’t acquire several informations.)
  • Knowledge: I gain considerable knowledge about a subject. (But I don’t acquire several knowledges.)
  • Staff: The staff of the library or the lab all assist me (but not the staffs).

Apparent Exceptions

You might be thinking, “I’m sure I’ve seen the word researches, so is it really incorrect?” And you’re right—there is a correct usage of that word, spelled in that way. But it is not a plural noun, and it does not name an object or a thing or even a concept. It describes the action someone takes when the person is doing research, but it does not refer to the results. A person researches the subject (performs the action of researching), and all the data and studies that result are the person’s research. (There’s that singular “box” again, containing all those bits of research.)

There is also a plural word, literatures, which does indeed name several nouns rather than a verb. But it is used when you talk about several different classes of literature that come from entire genres or huge categories. For example, you can have French literature (the entire body of literature by French writers), Australian literature (the same), and bodies of literature from several other countries. In this rare case, for example, you can talk about “the literatures of France, Australia, Japan, and Brazil.” Or you can talk about “the literatures of the environmentalist, LGBTQ2, and other activist communities.” But that plural word is only used (and rarely) in this one specialized way. If you are studying all the writings in your particular field (and possibly fields closely related to it), you are always looking at “the literature”—singular.

Several shelves of books in a library

All of these are “the literature.”

These details are a lot to absorb, I’m sure, especially after you have worked so hard to master the rest of the English language. But these “box words,” or specialized collective nouns, are words you will need to memorize and use properly as you continue your academic work. Learning to use these words correctly will make your English writing sound much more professional and polished. And once your writing is clear and professional, you will achieve your goal of conveying your important information much more understandably to your intended readers.