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In high school debate, we have resolutions or topics. This year, our topic is, "Just governments ought to require employers to provide a living wage." In order to form arguments, debaters have to specify whether the topic refers to one government or multiple governments when it says "Just governments ought to".

Some debaters say that because the topic specifies governments plural, it requires debaters to talk about multiple governments. However, there has been discussion that Bare Plurals, or plural nouns that have no number or temporal feature in front of it mandate that it be treated as a psuedo-singular noun. Therefore, under the bare plural interpretation, debaters would only be required to talk about one government.

My question is: which interpretation is correct; the plural interpretation or bare plural interpretation? What are arguments for both? Are there grammar experts that concur on one interpretation or another?

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    Just governments in the debate topic is a plural generic noun phrase; when used as the subject of a deontic should (or ought to), it means "in order to be considered a Just Government any government should, as a matter of definition, ". Obviously, this is a chewy topic to define terms for. Justice, government, justice as government applies it, justice as it applies to the government, living, wage, living wage, providing a living wage, the list goes on. Notice that employees are nowhere mentioned in the topic; does this mean they are irrelevant? Cui bono? – John Lawler Jan 2 '15 at 18:39
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    Oh, as for the generic noun phrases, more explanations are available here. You can cite me; it turns out I'm an authority on English generics. And a former debater. Good luck. – John Lawler Jan 2 '15 at 18:43
  • The debate teacher wisely required the students to distinguish between the generic and existential bare plural of governments before forming their arguments! Important distinction politically as well as linguistically. Great teacher! – ScotM Jan 2 '15 at 19:38
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I think it's a matter of opinion or preference.

I would interpret it as singular. In this case specifically, I can't think of any government that would consider itself unjust. But if all governments consider themselves just, and different governments operate differently, then not all governments can be just... So the question uses the plural to refer to all governments who think they are just, saying to each individual government, "Hey you. You are(n't) really just because just governments ought(n't) require employers to provide a living wage."

In essence, the debater is tasked with creating a utopian "just" government, and, within that government, determining whether it should require a minimum wage.

Edit: That said, you could cite multiple real-life governments that support your claim.

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They amount to the same thing.

We could express it in the singular, the plural (as you have it) or with the uncountable government as in "the practice of governing":

A just government ought to require employers to provide a living wage.

Just governments ought to require employers to provide a living wage.

Just government ought to require employers to provide a living wage.

In either case though the ought suggests a requirement. If it is an absolute requirement that a just government require a living wage from employers, then that applies to all just governments.

Conversely, if there is a government that could be considered just but which does not require this of employers, then it is not a requirement of any just government; though this would not rule out the case that a government could do so and also be just.

The plural, the singular and the uncountable therefore each express an argument that applies to all just governments. All forms therefore require the speakers to address not just multiple governments, but all of them (or at least, all that are just). That said, the actual arguments made need not have multiple examples; an argument for the motion could refer to a single abstract concept of government while an argument against could both do that and also pick a single real example that it claimed was just despite having no such requirement; the single counter-example suffices to dismiss the general rule.

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