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Consider this:

Universities and polytechnics are actively encouraged by the government of this country. The former are to provide academic education based on research, and the latter are to provide higher-level vocational education and promote applied research emphasising close contact with business.

Is "are" correct, or should it say "is," since "former" and "latter" aren't plural nouns?

  • Surely the verb must agree -- it's not really a question of whether it can do so. Using is there would make no sense, or at least introduce ambiguity with government, which can take a singular verb. – Andrew Leach Oct 20 '16 at 11:42
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    The use of 'are' rather than 'The purposes of ...' is rather clumsy, but better examples could be found. There's no grammatical problem in using 'The former are ...' or 'He is ...' where the antecedent is in a previous sentence, but here, repeating the nouns seems to make it easier for the reader. // If you're asking about agreement, 'the latter' takes singular or plural agreement as logic decrees (Two men and a dog appeared – the former were calm, but the latter was very excited.) – Edwin Ashworth Oct 20 '16 at 11:44
  • @Ol'Joe As you see there has been some disagreement concerning what you are actually asking about (that is, what the quote should be). Please review the edits and also add more detail into the question to clarify exactly what you want to know. – Andrew Leach Oct 20 '16 at 12:12
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    Yes, as your example shows. – Greg Lee Oct 20 '16 at 12:26
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    Former and latter refer to universities and polytechnics. Respectively. That is, the former means the universities, and the latter means the polytechnics. Since both are plural noun phrase subjects, their verbs must also be plural. – John Lawler Oct 20 '16 at 14:29
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'Former' and 'latter' are ordinal adjectives, not nouns. (The same is true of 'First', 'Last', etc.) The morpheme[s] for quantity are to be found on quantifiers and nouns, not adjectives. 'Former' and 'latter' are pointers to 'parallel' antecedents, which must be 'universities' and 'polytechnics' (the only list in the first sentence), and each of those nouns is plural, so the verb 'are' is used for agreement.

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A paragraph, a speech or a conversation should always be regarded as a coherent whole. There is always an undercurrent of reference that ebbs down from what was said to what will be said. English is a non null subject language. 'Former' and ' Latter' are adjectives and with article 'the' they function as substitution for nouns referred to in the preceding sentence. They have the same person, same number and same gender and so is their agreement with the verb. The former/the latter functions in the same way as we're accustomed to use " the rich(men)/the poor(men).

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Dropping "are" is better:

Universities and polytechnics are actively encouraged by the government of this country. The former, to provide academic education based on research, and the latter, to provide higher-level vocational education and promote applied research emphasizing close contact with business.

Note that you can repeat different amounts of the earlier sentence:

The former, to provide....

The former are to provide....

The former are actively encouraged to provide....

The former are actively encouraged by the government to provide....

The former are actively encouraged by the government of this country to provide....

Since the prior sentence is right there for reference, repeating none of it gives the neatest result, and certainly the shortest.

  • No, eliminating "are" creates an incomplete sentence. It scans, but it's no better than the original. – Azor Ahai Dec 22 '16 at 19:18

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