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My question concerns the number attached to mass nouns when modified by multiple adjectives meant to imply different versions of a common type. An illustrative case follows:

Belgian and Swiss chocolate differ from American chocolate.

vs.

Belgian and Swiss chocolate differs from American chocolate.

The first version is far clearer than the second version, since it is most natural to interpret the subject as elliptically referring to the compound "Belgian chocolate and Swiss chocolate" rather than to any chocolate that is Belgian and Swiss at the same time. But the second version accords more with the rote assignment of singular number to mass nouns in American English.

Can anyone recommend an authority that settles this question? I mainly refer to The Chicago Manual of Style as often as possible for the writing I edit, but of course it is only a starting point.

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    Out of curiosity -- have you encountered someone who actually believes that it should be "differs"? (I ask because that isn't a mistake I ever remember encountering.)
    – ruakh
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 0:48
  • Chocolate of both Belgian and Swiss origins is of one kind, and that differs from American chocolate. Also @ruakh
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 11:50
  • @Kris: The question specifies that we're talking about "multiple adjectives meant to imply different versions" -- what CGEL calls the "discrete sets" interpretation. (It's a general principle that when discussing the grammar of a sentence, we're actually discussing its grammar under a given interpretation.)
    – ruakh
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 17:42
  • Yes; I'd say we've got an unholy conflict of rules here. There is one Google hit for "Both Belgian and Swiss chocolate is" and zero for "Both Belgian and Swiss chocolate are". Unuseful. There aren't that many if we drop the 'both' (which allows false positives in), but both forms of agreement are used. I'd probably use 'hot and cold water is available', but 'the hot and cold water are provided separately' myself. Second-order notionality. Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 19:57
  • Frankly, I read the sentence, without noticing anything odd, and understood what it meant right away. On revisiting it after the question, I could parse it with no difficulty. Where's an issue?
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 8:01

1 Answer 1

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You need to have subject-verb agreement, so you use differ after a plural noun and differs after a singular noun.

How to interpret this is nuanced, but, simplistically, both of these are correct:

✔ Belgian and Swiss chocolates [plural] differ from American chocolates.

✔ Belgian and Swiss chocolate [singular] differs from American chocolate.

Also simplistically, both of these are incorrect:

✘ Belgian and Swiss chocolates [plural] differs from American chocolates.

✘ Belgian and Swiss chocolate [singular] differ from American chocolate.

However, it's sometime's not as simplistic as that. (I provide another analysis at the end of this answer.)


Understanding this, all that remains is how you parse the noun—if you're actually referring to a plural (countable) entity or a singular (mass) entity. But however you interpret that, the verb needs to match the noun count.


I had a comment suggest that this is wrong because the following is used:

The hot and cold water are provided separately.

But that still matches what I'm saying. In that sentence there are two things (hot water and cold water) and they are provided separately. The most important thing is matching the number of things with the correct verb form.

Whether you decide to put an s on the end of a combined plural noun (the hot and cold water or the hot and cold waters) is simply stylistic; it's immaterial to the form the verb should take.


In some cases, the syntax alone is insufficient to determine singularity or plurality. It depends on how you parse the sentence.

For instance, both of these are possible, depending on context and interpretation:

✔ 1.The choir was singing.
[Commonly US English, where choir is treated as a singular noun.]

✔ 2. The choir were singing.
[Commonly UK English, where the choir is treated as a plural noun.]

Or:

✔ 1. My fish and chips was delicious.
[I ate the single food item of fish and chips from the menu.]

✔ 2. My fish and chips were delicious.
[I ordered two food items: an order of salmon and a side of chips.]

In all interpretations of the noun, if you consider the noun to be singular, then it takes a singular verb; if you consider the noun to be plural, then it takes a plural verb.


Revisiting the start of this answer, if you style the spelling of the noun differently, such that Belgian and Swiss chocolate is considered a plural, then the following would be correct:

✔ Belgian and Swiss chocolate [plural] differ from American chocolate.

The spelling of this sentence exactly matches the earlier spelling in which I said the sentence was incorrect. However, it's incorrect when the noun is considered a singular concept, but correct when it's considered a plural concept.

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    But there are internet examples of say 'the hot and cold water are provided separately', where notional agreement seems more natural than proximity agreement. ELU prefers that claims be substantiated with linked and attributed references; unsupported claims often come across as (and sometimes are) mere hopeful opinion. Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 19:46
  • @EdwinAshworth Which exactly matches subject-verb agreement. (1) The hot water is provided separately. (2) The hot and cold water(s) are provided separately. It's the subjects and the verb that are most important, not that an s has been put at the end of the noun. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 12:41
  • A bald "You need to have subject-verb agreement, so you use 'differ' after a plural noun and 'differs' after a singular noun' [I assume you mean noun-form; arguably 'people' is a plural noun manifesting as a singular noun-form, with the occasional plural noun-form (and 'peoples'] " is too simplistic. "Fish and chips is my favourite takeaway." "Bacon and eggs was on the menu." Plural noun-form next to the verb, but singular (notionally informed) verb-form, ie singular agreement. The issue is complex. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 14:52
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    Are you sure that you can categorically say that the following is incorrect: Belgian and Swiss chocolate differ from American chocolate? Like Edwin Ashworth, I think there is a natural reading of that sentence that renders it acceptable. Here is a related example from COCA: Semisweet and bittersweet chocolate are similar and can usually be interchanged in recipes. There are lots of examples of this particular construction in google books (just search for "semisweet and bittersweet chocolate are"). Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 18:15
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    Better, but it would be even better if, instead of providing extra-linguistic markers [singular] and [plural], you placed the relevant sentences in contexts that force the singular or plural reading. Otherwise one might object that there is simply no context in which Belgian and Swiss chocolate differ from American chocolate is definitely unacceptable. And in fact, I have trouble imagining such a context in a world in which there is Belgian chocolate and there is Swiss chocolate, but no one kind of chocolate called 'Belgian and Swiss chocolate'. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 19:35

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