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When a sentence uses an optional plural, should the rest of the sentence treat it as singular or plural?

I'm writing a technical guide and trying to define 'reader' as it relates to the subject of the guide.

The reader(s) is/are the user(s) who view the content.

How do I get rid of all those conditionals? I've also considered,

The reader or readers are the users who view the content.

... which seems fine, but if we flip it, we get:

The readers or reader are the users who view the content.

I've also considered the most obvious:

The readers are the users who view the content

... but I want it implicit that there can be as few as one reader. Am I just over thinking this?

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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Mar 25 '12 at 14:48

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

    
if there are 5 users and 3 are viewing the content, do we have 5 readers or 3 readers? –  Arjang Jul 10 '11 at 1:49
    
Is there some reason why you can't just say "A reader is a user who..."? –  TimLymington Jul 22 '11 at 14:19

4 Answers 4

I don't understand your comment "I want it implicit that there can be as few as one reader".

If there's only one reader, use his name -- "Derek views the content".

If not, pluralise only. If you jump through hoops to include every potential whatever, your readers (or Derek, in this case) will have to jump through even more hoops to understand what you have written.

Write to be understood by your readers, not to cram as much information as possible into as small a space as possible.

Not one person with have trouble with or misunderstand: "The readers are users who view the content" (just make sure that what "the content" is is understood through context).

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Actually, I do have trouble with "The readers", rather than "Readers". But +1 for "write to be understood, not to cram as much information as possible into as small a space as possible". –  TimLymington Jul 24 '11 at 17:20

You're overthinking it slightly. In practice, your version "The reader or readers are the users who view the content." sounds fine. Yes, if you switch the order of the words round, it doesn't. So don't switch the order of the words round!

If it really bugs you, then strategies used in contract writing include:

  • insert an overtly singular word such as "term" and make the verb agree with that;
  • use determiners such as 'any' that aren't marked for number;
  • similarly, instead of conjugated verbs, use participles.

So then you get e.g. "The term 'reader(s)' refers to any user(s) viewing the context."

However, I do also think you may be trying to over-egg the omelette. In practice, it's common enough to write things like "Any reader(s) who view the content", and it's understood that the reader is to do the 'syntactical rejigging' to understand the subject as singular or plural.

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Give the definition of the term using the singular of the word; the fact you are defining a term using the singular of the doesn't mean there is just a reader at time.

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A user while viewing the content is a reader. There can be as few as one reader, but each user while viewing the content is counted as a reader, hence it is possible to have n users but only 1 to n readers at any given time.

Why make something implicit when it can be explicitly stated?

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1  
Um, because this is English.SE not maths or programming? –  TimLymington Jul 22 '11 at 14:20
    
@Tim : true, one needs to be aware of the constraints of framework before posting an answer, thanks. –  Arjang Jul 22 '11 at 21:54

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