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

Which is correct?

Buy an apple from the vendor(s) that are selling fruit.

Buy an apple from the vendor(s) that is selling fruit.

On the one hand, the content of the parentheses is supposed to be an aside, or in this case, a possible substitution for the word vendor. In that case, which verb should I use, singular or plural?

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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Mar 25 '12 at 14:50

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Just want to point out that you can't buy an apple from more than one vendor, so the (s) is not merely indecisive and appalling style, but wrong. –  TimLymington Nov 21 '11 at 21:44
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3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

"Vendor(s)" is something of a fake word that is deliberately ambiguous about number, and so it inevitably creates problems with the rest of the sentence.

In general, if you're not sure whether the number is singular or plural, I think the convention is to use the plural. So you could just say, "Buy an apple from the vendors that are selling fruit." Like if you say, "Interview all the applicants who have at least 5 years experience", it is not normally considered necessary to reword the sentence to allow for the possibility that there will be only one such applicant.

When it's necessary to be clear that the number might be singular or plural, the grammatically correct thing to write is, "Buy an apple from the vendor or vendors that are selling fruit." Now the uncertainty goes away, because there's a clear rule of English grammar that when you have a noun phrase with "or" in it, the number of the verb must agree with the number of the LAST noun in the list. The only time I do this is when I really need to be clear that there might be only one, if for some reason this is not obvious from the context.

When people want to be more concise, they sometimes write things like, "Buy an apple from the vendor(s) that is (are) selling fruit." Or, "But an apple from the vendor/vendors that is/are selling fruit." But I don't know of any authoritative source to back this up as legitimate, and it looks rather awkward. If the sentence gets long or turns into a paragraph, all the parentheses and slashes could get pretty tedious.

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Nice, comprehensive answer. –  The Raven Nov 21 '11 at 19:23
    
Thank you Jay, that explanation was excellent! –  Julian H. Lam Nov 22 '11 at 14:21
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I think you have to decide whether there will be one vendor or more than one. I'd go for the plural form, both of the subject and the verb.

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Another way round this one would be Buy an apple from the vendor(s) selling fruit. But as you imply, there's not really a universal solution - not least because vendor(s) isn't really a "word" with a fixed syntactic role. –  FumbleFingers Nov 21 '11 at 15:45
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As FumbleFingers commented, this does not really have a set answer because your shorthand violates normal grammatical rules. In some cases you can leave out some words that normally must agree with the grammatical number, giving a sentence that is not really correct but is understandable. This is what DOS used to do when listing files in a directory:

0 file(s) found.

1 file(s) found.

2 file(s) found.

I would avoid this problem by rewriting the sentence altogether.

Buy an apple from a vendor selling fruit.

Or

Buy some apples from one or more vendors selling fruit.

If "one or more" is too wordy, consider whether or not you need to even specify that the reader can go do more than one vendor. Do you need to be so precise? Is this a contract, or some out-dated computer system that can't construct proper plural messages? If not, write something simpler.

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