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When speaking precisely or technically, one would say that "Homo erectus and homo sapiens are two species of hominid" rather than "Homo erectus and homo sapiens are two species of hominids." The hominid here should be singular because we are speaking about instances of a single class ("class" being used here in its broader sense, not in the sense of taxonomic grouping).

Now let's consider more common parallel constructions replacing the word species with other words.

Tide and Wisk are two brands of detergent.
Tide and Wisk are two brands of detergents.

Cats and dogs are two types of pet you can buy at Pets-R-Us.
Cats and dogs are two types of pets you can buy at Pets-R-Us.

I feel that using the singular noun to specify the class is more grammatically correct, but sounds stilted in conversation. Almost everyone I hear making these constructions uses the plural form. What are your thoughts about singular vs. plural here?

Edit

Here's a more extreme example that may help clarify the issue. Consider the following sentence:

It was my first attempt at calming an angry crowd, and I just stood there while people were hurling all kinds of insults at me.

Here I think the singular insult sounds strange, if not downright wrong.

Further Edit

I just noticed in A Treasury for Word Lovers (Morton S. Freeman, 1983) a section entitled "Types of Errors." This is a book about (American) English usage by an English professor and editor, which purports to be a "practical guide for serious writers and readers." I wish I could say this discovery satisfies the question, but in fact I now feel somewhat farther from the truth, if there is any single "truth" in this matter. But at least I don't have to worry about being wrong when using the plural form of the class in these constructions.

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I agree with your intuition about insult — sounds downright wrong to my US-English ear. –  Kosmonaut Nov 24 '10 at 16:08
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@Kosmonaut: I wonder if in this case "all kinds of" acts as an informal adjectival phrase modifying insults. Remove the adjective and "people were hurling ... insult" is absolutely wrong. –  Robusto Nov 24 '10 at 16:13
    
@Robusto: That sounds very plausible. Do you think that contrasts with your other two examples? –  Kosmonaut Nov 24 '10 at 17:48
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I was thinking about your "detergent" example, and I think it doesn't sound as bad with the singular as the "pets" one. This is because of the fact that detergent can be countable or uncountable in certain situations, and the singular one definitely takes on that uncountable sense for me. –  Kosmonaut Nov 24 '10 at 17:49
    
@Kosmonaut: Possibly. If I say "Smirnoff and Absolut are two brands of vodka," the singular vodka sounds completely correct and natural, and it would seem barbarous to substitute the plural vodkas there. –  Robusto Nov 24 '10 at 18:03

5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

This is an interesting question, particularly because of this dichotomy:

  • This is a type of apple. (not apples)
  • These are two types of apples. (not apple)

I think that the construction of the form "two types of apple" sounds more than stilted; it just plain sounds awkward, and I would be surprised that it sounds familiar and normal to anyone (at least speaking for US English).

The idea that a plural form would be used for a class is actually not strange at all in English. To express the fact that I like things belonging to the "apple" class, I would say:

  • I like apples.

I would not be able to use the singular to express this:

  • *I like apple.
  • *I like an apple.
  • *I like the apple.

Saying "I like apples" doesn't even imply that I am talking about multiple apples; one could say this, for example:

  • I like apples, although I've only ever had one in my life.

So, saying "I like all sorts of apples" seems to jibe perfectly with the rest of English grammar.

This means that the strange case is actually this one:

  • This is a type of apple. (not apples)

Saying "this is a type of apples" is definitely not natural or familiar. It seems that, in phrases like "type(s) of X" ("kind(s) of X", etc.), there is generally number concord between the type-word and the class itself. Why that is, I don't know.

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There are definitely cultural differences then - 'These are two types of apple' is preferred over here. :) –  CJM Nov 24 '10 at 15:42
    
+1 for some interesting points. Please see my edit to the question, which pushes the boundaries further. –  Robusto Nov 24 '10 at 15:56
    
Awarding you the check. See my final edit to the question as to the reason. –  Robusto Nov 25 '10 at 17:25
    
Would you talk about apple types or apples types? Types of apple is just another way of saying apple types using an extra word and changing the word order. The rest of the clause should remain unchanged. –  Alan Gee Oct 15 at 14:58
    
@AlanGee: So, you allow an extra word to show up and you allow a change in the word order -- and yet at this stage there is now a rule that "the rest of the clause should remain unchanged"? Doesn't that seem really arbitrary to you? Especially since the loss of plural marking prenominally in noun-noun compounds is so common in English that we even singularize "pants", a word that is always plural, when we say "pant legs". –  Kosmonaut Oct 31 at 14:17

I agree that the singular is not only correct, but I also think it sounds far better too.

Cats and dogs are two types of pets you can buy at Pets-R-Us.

I actually stumbled over the this example; it just doesn't feel right when I say it.

[PS I'm British - I'm not sure if there are some cultural variations here]

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+1 and thanks for the input. I'm sure there are cultural variations. The dilemma I refer to concerns what I hear in the U.S. vernacular. –  Robusto Nov 24 '10 at 15:28

The best way I can think of to explain the correctness of the singular form as opposed to the plural is by way of this example.

I would say

Greyhound and Boxer are both dog breeds.

I would certainly not say

Greyhound and Boxer are both dogs breeds.

Therefore why should I say

Greyhound and Boxer are both breeds of dogs.

To me it sounds equally silly but that's because I'm a rather analytical creature.

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This logic doesn't hold up under scrutiny. "Gears and axles are both machine parts", but not "Gears and axles are both parts of machine". –  Peter Shor Oct 10 '12 at 12:55
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No, that would be 'parts of a machine' but that doesn't affect the plurality of it. –  Alan Gee Oct 10 '12 at 12:59
    
There is really a difference here between talking about types/breeds/kinds of things (as referred to in the question) and talking about parts of machines. With the former we can say that the dog is a a thing of which there are many breeds. If we do the same with the machine and its parts it doesn't quite have the same meaning does it? –  Alan Gee Oct 10 '12 at 13:08

There are many discussions on this type of things, such as "kind(s) of book(s)", "kind(s) of drink(s)", etc. I read quite a few threads about this on StackExchange.com and I found there were no clear answers. Finally I had to search "type(s) of thing(s)" as a whole keyword in Google and got the following results:

  • "types of thing" — 474,000
  • "type of things" — 18,700,000
  • "types of things" — 37,000,000
  • "type of thing" — 86,300,000
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This may not not be strictly grammatical, but as a point of logic, I interpret it like this:

"Types of thing"

Here you're talking about types as belonging to a single grouping category. The concept is one of making a union.

"Types of things"

Here you're talking about a number of forms of a number of different categories. Or you're talking about the things, plural, first and foremost, and types is a descriptor to indicate diversity.

You'll note these are distinctly different descriptions for different ends.

Examples:

"Frogs and cows are two different types of animal."

This is stressing the belonging of frogs and cows to one category.

"He was throwing all kinds of insults at me"

Many insults were thrown, not one. The stress on the insults - plural - the insults are of many different kinds. The intent is not to show belonging of all insults to one type, and so the notion of many insults is retained through the plural.

In more detail

In rough "linguistic speak" it's like this:

"Frogs and cows are two different types of animal."

The intention is unite two things under one category. In grouping them, we're showing belonging - belonging to a singular animal. In describing that one group to which both sub-types belong, we only need the singular. Frogs and cows are grouped to be labeled; a single 'notional object', if you like, under the word types. animal is a singular description for a that singular group: types.

"He was throwing all kinds of insults at me"

The intention is to describe the insults, plural. insults is a plural form of a 'notional object' within the sentence; the grouping of all kinds is to qualify the plural insults. It needs to be plural.

As far as I can see, this observation makes sense of anything I can throw at it with my Australian ear. I have to admit, however, the 'ears' of the general public are probably changing. "Kinds of things" is being used so often of late in place of what I believe should be "kinds of thing" (being consistent with the above logic). I'm sure many people will hear it another way. However, I should point out that there is, at least, internal logic in considering the true object to which number agreement should be made regarding the theory above... And that logic will never (well, not to my ear anyway) create a truly awkward sounding sentence... not that I've thought of thus far...

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