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I saw an old quote saying "My friends are mankind." Is this correct? The word "are" is generally used with multiple objects, so it works properly with friends - ie, "My friends are great" is correct. But "mankind" is singular - saying "Mankind are great" would definitely be incorrect.

Would "My friends are mankind" be proper grammar, or would it need to be changed to "my friends are the whole of mankind" in order to change mankind into a plural?

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3 Answers 3

The number of the complement is irrelevant: the verb agrees with the subject (only):

Those products are a joke

My friends are a gas

"I used to be a 90lb weakling but now I am two separate gorillas" (Mr Apollo by The Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band).

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Mankind is usually singular nowadays, but if you go back a century or so it was usually plural.

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Neither plurality is or ever was axiomatically "wrong", but we tend to avoid saying, for example, "mankind are my friends" because it conflicts with the current "default" singular. Or we might say "all mankind are", because that muddies things up a bit and makes it more "acceptable".

OP is simply wrong to say mankind are great is "incorrect". Some people won't like that, but it's fine to others. To me, it's a collective noun - which can take either plurality according to context.

It's true people would normally say mankind is careless of the environment. Partly because it accords with our default plurality, but partly because that context suits the implication of a single "controlling mind", whereas with [all] mankind are my friends, we're probably thinking of lots of real friendships with individuals, not one metaphorical friendship with an abstract concept.

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There are regional variations in how collective nouns are treated:

British English treats them as representing all of the members of the collection. For example, in "CarCo are preparing their new models," CarCo is interpreted meaning"all the people of CarCo."

American English does the opposite, treating the collection itself singularly: "CarCo is preparing its new models."

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That's a nice simple statement about British usage. Trouble is, it's wrong: things aren't so simple. British English can treat collectives as either singular or plural. Introspectively, there is a difference to me between "CarCo is preparing" and "CarCo are preparing", but I'm hard put to explain or characterise the difference. When I use the plural, I have a mental picture of a group of people (not necessarily all of them, by the way) doing the preparation. –  Colin Fine Apr 1 '12 at 21:43
    
I'm a speaker of AE, but I spend a lot of time around speakers of BE. I'm sure that I almost always hear "are" in more formal writing (press releases, news reports, etc.), but I'll have to take notice of how often I hear it in casual speech. –  Blrfl Apr 1 '12 at 22:56
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@Colin Fine: Agreed Brits use both pluralities - apparently more casually than Americans, who seem much more likely to stick with singular in all cases. I, for example, am quite happy to say my family is in favour, or my family are in favour - largely depending on whether I'm thinking of it/them as a single unit speaking with a collective voice, or several individuals who are each in favour. –  FumbleFingers Apr 2 '12 at 0:10

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