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When referring to multiple authors by using the name of the first author and "et al.", is it correct to grammatically treat this as one person or multiple persons?

Gamma et al. are saying in their text...

vs.

Gamma et al. is saying in his text...

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This is the question of whether to construe a set of people as singular or plural. Compare “Simon and Garfunkel is playing on the radio right now” with “Simon and Garfunkel are having a reunion this year”. –  tchrist Jan 14 '13 at 13:59
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Really, this is a question for writersSE. Here is how. What the OP implies is that in his sentence, "Gamma et al." refers to a certain publication, not to the set of authors. In practice, this is generally avoided. Such a publication is referred as "Gamma", not "Gamma et al." Where there is ambiguity, the year of publication or a serial number is used to clarify. –  Kris Jan 14 '13 at 15:17
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... However, when we refer to a set of people, "Gamma et al. are" is the expression. Subramanian et al. are also concerned with sharing information among the members of the design team and supporting this kind of inter-change. (Parsaei: Concurrent Engg.); Where Howie Rich et al. are spending these days (bradwarthen.com) –  Kris Jan 14 '13 at 15:27

6 Answers 6

up vote 20 down vote accepted

The Latin translates into Gamma and others, so the verb should be plural if the subject is construed as the authors. However, if the subject is construed to be the article, a singular entity written by three or more authors, e.g., the Gamma et al. article, then the sentence can be written as Gamma et al. says that... -- this is, however, rare, in my experience, and, like walkmanyi, I would avoid it if possible.

When I edit biomed articles, I always treat this structure as a plural subject and ensure plural subject-verb concord: Gamma et al. (2009) say that....

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I really think this must be the right answer. –  tchrist Jan 14 '13 at 14:34
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Sounds logical and plausible. I've also only rarely seen the usage of the article or book as the subject. So plural seems to be the right choice in most cases. Thanks. –  kdzia Jan 14 '13 at 14:43
    
Just because Latin says it is a plural doesn't make it so in English. If the phrase is considered a set of people then it's plural. If it is considered a label for a paper, then it is singular. But if the normal practice is to consider it as a set of people, then -that- is what it is. (which is to say, in the end, I agree with this answer). –  Mitch Jan 14 '13 at 16:12

The Ngram is not helpful in this situation. The following sentence works: An Experimental Approach to the Development of Insect Wings by Smith, W, et al. is a useful resource; however, "Smith, W. et al. suggest that my daughter should not have been born with wings" ain't that bad either. Ask yourself, "What is the subject of the sentence, the work itself or the authors of the work?"

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I agree with your statement. But I think it would be better put as a comment to the "ngram"-answer than as an answer on its own. (The answer part "look at the subject of the sentence" is already covered by user21497 answer) –  kdzia Aug 6 '13 at 16:00

Looking at usage rather than Latin:

Google Ngrams

Searching books, et al. is has a slight edge over et al. are

Ngram, almost identical curves, but the singular is slightly more popular

Google Scholar

Searching papers, the singular has more results:

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We can take different approaches to answering this.

Trying to analyse it, I have to conclude that since et al means "and others" that I would treat it as plural just as I would if I'd simply used the English "Gamma and others are saying" rather than "Gamma and others is saying".

We can look at patterns of usage. Here this look at google ngrams suggests the use of the singular. However, it's close and neither are very common. This look at ngrams uses more possible verbs, and finds that generally the plural is more heavily used, and much more with "...et al have" vs "...et al has".

So far it would seem that we should definitely use the plural. A counter-argument is that we often use the author or authors of a text to refer to the text itself. If this is the case, then it should be treated as plural. However, that doesn't seem to be the usage here, and indeed we could say that this may explain some of the singular use found by examining ngrams above, so in fact it actually adds weight to the argument in favour of plural use. It does suggest that the following are both correct though:

"Gamma et al are saying..." referring to the authors.

"[Gamma et al] is saying..." referring to the text, where the bibliography has an entry of that and for some reason we prefer not to just list it as "[Gamma]".

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Sensible answer; why does the occurrence of Latin drive normally sensible people into a spin? If it were Gamma and Delta it would clearly be are except in the few cases where the subject is the article rather than the authors. 'Et al.' doesn't change that. –  TimLymington Jan 14 '13 at 23:25

I would say plural simply because et is Latin for and, so you are linking at least two items (Gamma and X) so you invoke a plural verb.

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First of all, my answer won't be authoritative regarding English grammar, I base it on observed patterns in literature.

Is it correct to grammatically treat this as one person or multiple persons?

As you stated your examples, it would be clearly plural, since you are speaking about a group of authors, even though mixed with Latin. That is "Gamma et al. are saying in their text..."

Having said that, there are multiple uses of "Name et al.". Besides speaking about a group of authors, this can also refer to a particular work, such as a book, or a paper mentioned earlier. An example would be the second sentence of the following: an algorithm has a complexity X (Name et al.). That is, Name et al. bases the analysis on Y and continues with .... However, personally, I would try to avoid such constructions altogether - if possible.

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Why would you use 'et al' for a particular work? –  lindanaughton Jan 18 '13 at 6:44

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