Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Most corn seed is genetically engineered.

Most people in town are unemployed.

Most fish is/are seawater species?

Is there any general rule that separates where the majority part described by "most" is plural, and when is it singular? Especially, when it's describing some entity composed of parts.

share|improve this question
Your examples use is for singular or mass nouns and are for plural, which is how be conjugates. –  Matt Эллен Dec 6 '12 at 11:24
The difficulty is that 'fish' seems like a mass noun (because it is the same form in singular as in plural). But it acts as a plural noun here. –  Mitch Dec 6 '12 at 14:24
I'm pretty sure this is a duplicate (probably several times over), but I'm too lazy to find out for sure. –  Marthaª Dec 6 '12 at 14:45

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I am not sure about 'rule', but there is a guide and it is down to perception.

When the items can be perceived as individuals, it is plural. When the items cannot be perceived as individuals, they are literally uncountable and hence singular.

When you look in a sack of seed you don't really see individuals, and they are beyond counting, so it is seed. Sand, or powder, is a more extreme example. In contrast, if you have three seeds in your hand, you see them as individuals and easily countable, so it would be three seeds in your hand.

Compare this with, say, a sack of potatoes, where the individual potatoes are easily discerned.

As for 'fish', one explanation I have seen is that when they are animals (in other words they are alive) the plural is 'fish'; when they are food (in other words they are dead) the plural is 'fishes'. This explains why we have all the fish in the sea but five loaves and two fishes.

There are alternative explanations, of course.

People is inherently plural - the singular is 'person'.

share|improve this answer
"People" is inherently plural when not used to describe an ethnic group, in which case it's singular, eg: A People and a Nation: A History of the United States‌​, Volume I. Mary Beth Norton, Carol Sheriff, David W. Blight, Howard Chudacoff, Fredrik Logevall. Fishes is an alternative plural in AmE; it's probably slightly dated & academic. Ngrams shows many titles about live fish with both spellings. –  user21497 Nov 12 '12 at 12:34
Yes. People can be used to label a population. Well done, but I think we all know that already and it is not relevant to the question as "Most people in town are unemployed." is obviously not using people in that sense. Any more ah-buttery? –  Roaring Fish Nov 12 '12 at 13:01
"Ah-buttery"? Maybe it's related to "Ah, but..."? My comment was related not to the OP's sentence about people but to your comment about the inherent singularity of the lexeme people. I don't make as many assumptions as some of the posters here about what "we all know" because I have no idea what we all know. I'm often pleasantly surprised by what I learn from other posters: that means I don't always know even what I do and don't know. If I don't know that, then how can I be as sure as you are about what "we all know". What's your secret? –  user21497 Nov 12 '12 at 13:39
@Roaring Fish ('s answer): Very true about the 'is it countable' connection with count- and mass-noun usage. Tricky ones are peas (Would you like less peas? I think is more common hereabouts than the fewer version - especially with mushy peas.) beans (especially the small ones), and bacon and eggs (I must eat less bacon and eggs.) Confetti, though a plural noun (and a confetto may be used for a sweet, I believe), takes singular concord. –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 12 '12 at 15:19

Seed in this instance is an uncountable noun and so it’s treated as singular: Most corn seed is . . . People and fish, by contrast are plural nouns. People has no singular form. The plural of fish is sometimes fishes, but here it is the same as the singular. It follows that you need to write Most people in town are . . . and Most fish are . . .

share|improve this answer
thanks; edited to match your notice. –  SF. Nov 12 '12 at 8:30
My answer now edited in consequence. –  Barrie England Nov 12 '12 at 8:32
Sorry to add a complication, but it's important. Some nouns can be used as count or non-count nouns, and then, if the plural and singular forms are identical, one has to decide whether a non-count noun (usually taking singular agreement) or a plural is involved. Fish is, in fact, one of these nouns: Most fish (/es) are salt-water species. BUT: Most of the fish landed at Swiftwood is sold abroad. Generally, agreement is logical, but the police are making inquiries contrasting with the church is meeting later nowadays seems to argue for greater church unity. –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 12 '12 at 9:11
@EdwinAshworth: I believe that "complication" deserves to be an answer. I'd upvote it. –  J.R. Nov 12 '12 at 9:15
@EdwinAshworth: I think you should also add "Most of the fish landed at Swiftwood are sold abroad." This is also grammatical and possible: "I gave away most of the fish I caught today" looks at the fish as individual fish, so it's a count noun and plural, just as in your Swiftwood sentence, in which fish can be either non-count singular or count plural. I don't think there is any inherent logic in the Swiftwood sentence that demands either a singular or a plural; either one will do, IMHO. What do you think? –  user21497 Nov 12 '12 at 9:36

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.