Stephen Pinker published an essay entitled "Science is not your enemy", addressed to researchers in the humanities. Suppose one wanted to make an analogous suggestion to researchers in the sciences? Here are some options:

The humanities is not your enemy.

But "humanities" has the form of a plural, whereas "is" is singular.

The humanities are not your enemy.

Gloria Origgi posted article with this title, but if there are multiple humanities, wouldn't there be multiple enemies, i.e. that they are not?

The humanities are not your enemies.

That just sounds odd. I'm referring to the humanities as a whole. Although I suppose it would be different if I wanted to specify that each individual humanity is not your enemy:

Art is not your enemy; history is not your enemy; literary studies is not ... oops, are not, um ....

5 Answers 5


Looks like "the humanities are" has been slightly more popular historically: Google Ngram Viewer

Though based on that, you'd have to say either is acceptable.


I am not the first to urge here that “The humanities are not your enemy” is perfectly fine and grammatical as an answer to Pinker’ title. Where I differ from my predecessor is in not depending on any reading of enemy as a collective noun in order to declare so. It may sound kinky, but many can copulate with one. One can say to one’s insurance agent, “The premiums are not the issue; this policy just does not have the coverage I need.” Is issue here a collective noun? No. Is the sentence improved by substituting the plural form issues? No again. Sufficient unto the day . . . let us not borrow grammatical trouble where none exists.

  • In my opinion this is the best answer. What brought me here was the (grammatically correct, I believe) sentence "The arts are always one of the first things to go." I wrote it in an email to a friend this morning without even thinking about the grammar, then later wondered about it. It just doesn't sound right if you replace "are" with "is." Mar 6, 2017 at 18:37

I am too new here (6 days) to know whether we are discussing USA English or some other type. But I am struck by the syntax of World Cup commentators from England who say,
i) "Italy have scored." ii) "Mexico have gotten the equalizer." Clearly, they see the term team as plural.

An American commentator would say, "Italy has scored", as if the team was one. (e pluribus unum) So, if Michael Bennett of ESPN, a Brit, was assessing the threat posed by "the humanities," I am confident he would adjudge them plural.

"The Humanities have not threatened so far this afternoon." But Bob Ley, an American, would say, "The United States has scored, but the Humanities has shown no cause for alarm."

  • I'm American, but that doesn't mean I only care about North American usage. In all of the British writing I read (quite a bit), I had never noticed this difference. Fascinating. To my ear "Italy have scored" sounds like something a non-native speaker would say by mistake. The USA/UK difference is discussed on the Free Dictionary page that @TomZych linked, as well.
    – Mars
    Jun 17, 2014 at 4:22

The humanities are not your enemy is correct.

Enemy is a collective noun, as discussed at the Free Dictionary; and according to Huddleston, Section 7.3, a collective noun may be used with a plural verb.

Now, if we were saying something like Aaron Burr is your enemy, clearly the singular would be the only correct choice. But humanities is definitely plural. Thus, since we can treat enemy as plural, we should.

  • Thanks for the very useful link to a relevant Free Dictionary page. Two of the entries support @stevenking's point out that there's a difference between US and UK usage that would seem to allow either any of the three versions I gave, depending on (a) context and intent, and (b) US vs UK English. This is all wonderful. The article title "The humanities are not your enemy" was by an Italian who works in France, writing for a German website; it would be reasonable for her to prefer UK usage, as she did.
    – Mars
    Jun 17, 2014 at 4:28

Here's what I think. 'The humanities is not your enemy' is correct. If you want to play out the plural line to the end, the sentence should read 'These humanities are not your enemies'--which sounds ridiculous. The definite article 'the' gives the clue that 'the humanities' are viewed as a collective noun requiring the singular construction. Science is not a collective noun. One does not look at the word 'science' and immediately think of all the sciences from anatomy to zoology. The word stands alone as a broad academic subject area. In unlike fashion the term 'literary studies' is not meant to refer to individual literary works, but is an academic subject area, but 'literary' is an adjective modifying 'studies' (pl.) And 'literary studies are not your enemy'. is correct. If I wrote 'The sciences are not your enemy', this use of the plural form is correct because sciences is in plural form. The Humanities does not have a singular form such as 'The humanity'. I could go on and talk about collective nouns like politics, eugenics, auto mechanics, etc. but I have to spare myself and the reader of this answer. As a final word, I would say that headlines and headers have their own grammar rules which simplify matters for all concerned. The headline writer doesn't have the luxury of writing: 'Subjects in the humanities are not your enemies'. The space restrictions don't allow it.

  • This all makes sense. The only thing I'd add is that "The" sometimes seems to modify multiple things as such. "Each of the cats meows for a different reason."
    – Mars
    Jun 17, 2014 at 4:36
  • "The definite article 'the' gives the clue that 'the humanities' are viewed as a collective noun requiring the singular construction." What?? How does "the" do that? In English the definite article simply doesn't care about the number of the object it's applied to. Jun 23, 2014 at 2:35

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