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First, I would like to introduce two sentences I have encountered in a news article.

(1)

Since the end of August, deaths from the coronavirus have doubled in counties with a large college population, compared with a 58 percent increase in the rest of the nation.


(2)

In counties with large college populations and where deaths had increased notably in the fall, local health officials offered a wide range of explanations.

What attracts may attention is the subtle difference in these two sentences--between counties with "a large college population" and "large college populations."

To me, the phrase "counties with large college populations" is more natural because the plural form of population corresponds to the plural "counties"--different counties should have different populations as a matter of fact?

But apparently, both usage is valid as the same writer uses both expressions in the same article. I guess the expression "counties with a large college population" maybe places some emphasis on something, but I cannot comprehend it.

What is the difference between the two phrases? Is there any difference in meaning or in how native speakers perceive these slightly different expressions? Can you also explain from the aspects of grammar and practical everyday usage.

Thank you for providing your exceptional knowledge.

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    'Counties with a large college population' means those counties having a (proportionately, probably) large number of people attending colleges within those counties. // 'Counties with large college populations' may just be intended as a pure synonym. And this is the likely sense. But equally valid other than on the ground of pragmatics here is the reading those counties having large colleges (ie colleges having large numbers of students). Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 17:13
  • 1
    Methinks there had been a notable increase in deaths, but that deaths had increased noticeably in the fall.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 17:37
  • The article is about links between university outbreaks and surging deaths in the communities home to universities. So, "counties with a large college population/counties with large college populations" both seem to mean counties that proportionately have a large number/ large numbers of college students. I would like to know why both the singular and plural forms of population are used for what effect and what difference.
    – user48754
    Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 22:49
  • I suspect the choice would be mainly cultural. Likely preferences along this line are different between the US and England, for instance. In the US there are large college all over the country, in different states, so there is no centered "college population". In other countries the college population is fairly concentrated in one or two urban areas (or it at least has a fairly consistent social/economic character).
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 15, 2020 at 13:50

4 Answers 4

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Your examples are both grammatically fine, though—strictly analyzing—they could have slightly different meanings. However, I don't believe the author intended them to be interpreted differently. The singular population would be correct in both sentences, but I think there is a tendency to go with the ear—that is, to try to make a match between the plural counties and the plural populations, even when that type of agreement is not warranted.

Let's look at the prepositional phrases: with a large college population and with large college populations. These both modify counties. For clarity, let's change the prepositional phrases to relative clauses with the same meaning. Now imagine each of these as a head of a list of counties:

Counties That Have a Large College Population
County 1 [has a large college population]
County 2 [has a large college population]
County 3 [has a large college population]

Counties That Have Large College Populations
County 4 [has large college populations]
County 5 [has large college populations]
County 6 [has large college populations]

Do you see how those can both be correct? The first one does not mean that the counties share the same population. The second one does imply that some counties have more than one college population, perhaps as a result of having two or more colleges.

Of course, one could combine those two or more populations into one overall college student population, so counties that have a large college population actually covers both a single-college and a multiple-college interpretation.

Try this:

Counties That Have a Harvard College Student Population
County 7 [has a Harvard College Student population]
County 8 [has a Harvard College Student population]
County 9 [has a Harvard College Student population]

Each county has its own population of Harvard College students. I don't think you would argue that this should read—for agreement's sake—Counties That Have Harvard College Student Populations.

Try this:

Rock Stars Who Have an Attitude
Rock Star 1 [has an attitude]
Rock Star 2 [has an attitude]
Rock Star 3 [has an attitude]

You can do a Google or COCA search for "who have [insert any count noun in the singular]" and "who have [insert the same count noun in plural]". The singular is vastly more common.

Here's another exercise:

Counties That Have One College
County 1
County 2
County 3

Counties That Have Multiple Colleges
County 4
County 5
County 6

Counties That Have a College
County 1
County 2
County 3
County 4
County 5
County 6

What do you think?

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This is really splitting hairs, but I can only see this difference:

in counties with a large college population

-in counties which share one property in common (that of having a large college population)

In counties with large college populations

-corresponds to the explanation you have already given ("the plural form of population corresponds to the plural "counties"), so the emphasis falls more on each county having this property, rather than on what makes them a group.

I don't know about every day usage, but in written texts, Google Books gives preference to counties with large populations, which I did not expect, but there you go.

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Short Answer

The short answer is that population and populations are two distinct ideas, and there is a difference if one talks about the two. Population, which is treated as a mass noun in the singular, and populations is treated as a countable noun when referring to a collection of distinct groups of people. Which is primarily determined by the context of the passage.

Long Answer

Before we tackle your question, let's take a detour to review. Let's examine two similar sentences.

S1. The sailor sailed over the water.
S2. The sailor sailed over the waters.

This highlights the difference between countable and mass nouns. A countable noun is one that normally is experienced as a collection of objects. For instance, let's consider water. In day to day experience, one generally experience water as the fluid known as liquid. Pure water is essentially a collection of H2O molecules which are imperceptible directly, so water is conceived as a mass. One can have more or less water when one has a mass of water. Sailors, on the other hand, are not imperceptibly divided and reconstituted as groups. Thus one more formally speaks of having more or fewer sailors. In less formal usage, this difference in grammar is frequently blurred or not observed at all.

Now, in the examples above, what seems more natural is the first. Waters doesn't sound right if one uses frequency of occurrence as a measure. In fact, in normal speech, one almost never hears waters used in the plural; however, technically speaking, once can count waters, if one considers water to refer not to the substance, but to the body as a whole. Here in the Chicagoland, we drink (fluid) water from our tap which comes from Lake Michigan. But if we would like to go sailing, we could sail readily on one of five waters (as in bodies of) called the Great Lakes and remembered by HOMES: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. Thus a sailor can sail on the water of Lake Michigan or the waters of the Great Lakes (which collectively is a lot of water, indeed!)

Now, in your example there are two meanings at play between your two sentences. Let's simplify:

S1. I travel to counties with a large college population.
S2. I travel to counties with large college populations.

If S1 sounds more "natural", I'd guess it's because it is used more frequently in speech, however, there is nothing agrammatical about S2, and looks like it might enjoy an advantage among the more literate. Think about the use of 'who' and 'whom' or the subjunctive 'was' or 'were'. Strictly speaking, they mean different things. In the philosophy of language, one might discuss ontological commitment. For the beginner, this simply means that:

S1 claims there is more than one county each of which has one college population.
S2 claims there is more than one county each of which has more than one college population.

I suspect most counties in the US have at most one nearby college, and therefore one college population. But in a metropolitan area like Cook County, there are many colleges and universities and therefore it is fitting to say that the county has college populations (Loyola, UIC, University of Chicago, Northwestern, etc.).

Now, in regards to your Google search, you searched WITHOUT the noun-as-adjective 'college', so that again changes the meaning. This time, we are concerned about non-qualified population within a county. The qualification is one way of expressing what linguistics calls hyponymy. A college population is a type of population. Since population is broader than college population, it usually implies that there are other hyponyms. A county population has many types of populations. Asians in a county, mathematicians in a county, and college students in a county are examples. Thus without the adjective modifying county, it's much easier to see why one might refer to a county with large populations. Demographic analysis by nature is interested in what can be called 'sub-populations of the population of a region', but it's easier to just call them 'populations of a region'. Fewer syllables, fewer letters, and less typing.

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The use of plural or singular is related to the subject of the sentence not the subject of the article as a whole.

Since the end of August, deaths from the corona-virus have doubled in counties with a large college population, compared with a 58 percent increase in the rest of the nation.

Answer, This relates to Counties with a large number of college students (the number of colleges being irrelevant to the fact). Hence population is used as opposed too populations.

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In counties with large college populations and where deaths had increased notably in the fall, local health officials offered a wide range of explanations.

Answer, This relates to local not regional Health officials, so the number of offered explanation relates to local populations Not the regional (county) population. Hence populations is used as opposed too population.

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