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I've recently read a blurb from a local paper that included the following:

The pair was drinking prior to the shooting.

To me, this appears wrong and I would say that the proper way to make the statement would be:

The pair were drinking prior to the shooting.

Is the original article correct?

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possible duplicate of Is "staff" plural? – Robusto Jun 27 '11 at 18:30

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

It's really just a matter of style.

Here's an NGram showing that both forms occur about as often. More recent prescriptive grammarians tend to say that a pair must be singular, but that's not going to stop half the English-speaking world from continuing with what was originally the much more common pluralised usage.

The most sensible way to approach this one is to assume both forms are valid. If the usage primarily deals with the pair as a unit, go for the singular. I don't find it easy to visualise a pair drinking together as anything other than two actual people, so in OP's example I would use the plural without hesitation.

By way of support for that last sentence, there aren't enough written instances in Google Books to compare usage for "pair ... drinking", but compare the 4,990 results for "pair were sitting" against 417 for "pair was sitting". The "guesstimate" figures aren't exactly true - when I page through them, GB admits the plural version has only 320 hits. But the singular really has only 79, which is still more than 4:1 in favour of using the plural if the verb implies each individual member of the pair doing something (particularly, people), as would be the case with, say, drinking.

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+1 Thanks for that link that's awesome. – Technik Empire Jun 27 '11 at 18:41
Interesting +1 for the ngram – Unreason Jun 27 '11 at 18:44
@Unreason: If you look at the actual instances, you'll see that quite a few are irrelevant to us here. But it seems to me that applies about equally to both forms, so the underlying message remains valid. – FumbleFingers Jun 27 '11 at 18:46
One of the pair was, the two in the other pair were. I don't know we can give much stock to this Ngram search. Is there a way to filter out results with a preceding of? Sorry fumble--I want to believe, help me in my disbelief!! :-) – NateMPLS Jun 27 '11 at 19:21
@NateMPLS: As I said, a goodly proportion of those NGram hits are irrelevant to our question. I just glanced at a few dozen of each, and got the impression there were plenty of relevant instances for both singular and plural forms. I personally don't find either 'jarring' in appropriate sentences, and I put little stock in 'rules' of grammar or logic on this issue. But I am interested in what people say/write, as I assume is OP. So let's dig a little deeper, maybe? – FumbleFingers Jun 27 '11 at 20:16

Important message: I've just edited this question, so it now advocates a (hopefully) much more correct view. It has 4 downvotes from my saying that pair was is the only correct way to say it (which I did believe 9 months ago). I am sincerely regretful for having misled the OP (and anyone else to whom this applies) with not much chance of his seeing my correction.

From a prescriptive point of view, since pair is a singular noun, referring to two things (while pairs is the plural form of that noun), pair was is the correct way to say it:


A pair was...

Two pairs were...

The article is therefore grammatically correct.

However, since the world is not composed of pedants, your proposition (the pair were...) is no less correct. Due to a grammatical phenomenon called synesis, pair and other collective nouns can be treated as plural, taking a plural verb:

Synesis is a traditional grammatical/rhetorical term derived from Greek σύνεσις (originally meaning "unification, meeting, sense, conscience, insight, realization, mind, reason"). A constructio kata synesin (or constructio ad sensum in Latin) means a grammatical construction in which a word takes the gender or number not of the word with which it should regularly agree, but of some other word implied in that word. It is effectively an agreement of words with the sense, instead of the morphosyntactic form.


  • If the band are popular, they will play next month.

Here, the plural pronoun they co-refers with the singular noun band. One can think of the antecedent of they as an implied plural noun such as musicians.

I won't quote more, since I included the link, but it's well worth looking at.

The moral of this story is that either way is grammatically correct, and the difference is a matter of style.

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Thanks for clearing that up. I only called it into question because believe it or not, Websters gives an example of using "pair" in reference to a married couple and uses "were" combined with it. Assuming I could trust Websters, I erroneously argued with the publishers of the article and now look like a total moron. lol thanks again. – Technik Empire Jun 27 '11 at 18:40
Is this another case where American and British usage differ? – Peter Shor Jun 27 '11 at 19:19
Yes, "pair were" is correct in British English as I understand. (I am American, but living in the UK.) It's the same reason the British say "Chelsea were victorious today in the football match" not "Chelsea was victorious..." – Sean Owen Jun 27 '11 at 20:38
Actually the Corpus of Contemporary American English reports that "pair were" is alive and well in the US: 95/71 for "was"/"were" respectively. And eliminating irrelevant entries (e.g. this coin and the Smithsonian's pair were; if the pair were competing; a newly hired au pair was scheduled to...; and especially one of each pair was...) "pair were" wins by 62-55. So Webster's is right, and "pair were" is entirely correct in both US and UK English (which is not saying that "pair was" is ever incorrect, especially in examples like "pair of scissors"!) – psmears Jun 27 '11 at 22:24
Okay - I've reversed my downvote here too! I think I probably only answered myself because I didn't agree with your original position, but I'm minded to add a bit to my answer to support my assertion that in OP's specific example the plural form really is preferred. – FumbleFingers Mar 16 '12 at 20:52

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