Are specific decades singular or plural? Which of the following is grammatically correct?

The '70s was a great period for rock music.


The '70s were a great period for rock music.

Please provide references if you have any.


My interpretation would be this (including source).

Rule 8. Use a singular verb with distances, periods of time, sums of money, etc., when considered as a unit.

The '70s is a period of time

Examples: Three miles is too far to walk. Five years is the maximum sentence for that offense. Ten dollars is a high price to pay. BUT Ten dollars (i.e., dollar bills) were scattered on the floor.

Rule 8: Blue book of grammar and punctuation

  • On the other hand, "Five years is ..." could be rephrased as "The maximum sentence ... is ...", in which case it's easy to see why the verb is singular. One might say "Five years was/were spent in constructing the building." I'd be inclined, myself, to use the plural there - though I have no source to back me up. – Matt Gutting Jun 20 '14 at 13:54
  • If you find a source to demonstrate your example, please make a reference here as well for the clarity of the answer and simply because it helps make the language that little bit more clear and enjoyable. Thank you for your comment! – Mnescat Jun 20 '14 at 14:01
  • Nice find. Oddly enough, to me it sounds fine to say "three miles are too far to walk", although I agree with the other examples. (This suggests that the rule should probably hold in all cases.) – Sparhawk Jun 24 '14 at 1:10

My intuition is that it can work either way. If you use "were", then you are treating it as a collection of 10 years. If you use "was", then you are treating it as a single decade. This is similar to how teams and corporations can be singular or plural depending on how you look at them.

On ngrams we can see that both are in use, though the search result is misleading because there are false matches like "The X of the 70s was a good X". enter image description here

  • The s at the end makes me think that it's plural. – Archa Jun 20 '14 at 13:41
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    @Archa Yes, but it's also the name of the decade. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jun 20 '14 at 13:45
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    You told that "were" treats as a "collection of 10 years" and "was" a single decade, but, what's the difference? A single decade is a collection of 10 years. Sorry, I really didn't understand. – Guilherme Oderdenge Jun 20 '14 at 13:48
  • A single decade is a single extent of time that happens to be ten years long. A collection of ten years could be any old group of ten years; if you use were to describe a decade you're thinking of it as a collection of ten years that happen to be consecutive years. – Matt Gutting Jun 20 '14 at 13:50
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    @GuilhermeOderdenge "one decade" is a singular thing. "10 years" is plural. Compare "That decade felt really long to me" and "Those 10 years felt really long to me". The first is singular (uses that), the second is plural (uses those). You can treat "The 70s" as either one decade or ten years. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jun 20 '14 at 14:58

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