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The following sentence appears in the book 'Improve Your Grammar', Harper Collins Publishers, p.118:

  • Athletics give many deprived kids a great chance in life.

There is a comment on this, '... as athletics is usually regarded as a plural noun it requires the plural give'.

But according to Longman Dictionary, 'athletics is followed by a singular verb'. There is also an example of this usage:

  • Athletics is a largely individual sport.

...............

However, according to Learners Dictionary.com, the situation is as follows 'athletics is plural form but is used with both plural and singular'. And an example of the plural verb usage :

  • College athletics attract students from a variety of backgrounds.

What is your assessment here?

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1 Answer 1

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I'll start by clearing up some terminology; Improve your Grammar's comment is as clear as mud.

(1) 'Athletics', like 'mathematics', 'scissors', 'apples', 'news', 'oxen' 'data' but not 'staff', is plural in form.

(2) This hints fairly strongly, but certainly does not demand (think of 'the news is not good'), that a plural verb form should/must be used. But the only way to test is to look what happens in practice and consult educated usage panels. The dictionaries have done their research, and the results indicate that there is not a consensus on what is correct here:

[According to Improve Your Grammar, Harper Collins Publishers, p.118:

'... as athletics is usually regarded as a plural noun it requires the plural give':

  • Athletics give many deprived kids a great chance in life. ]

...................

[But, according to [M-W] Learners Dictionary.com, the situation is as follows: 'athletics is plural form but is used with both plural and singular'. And an example of this one:

  • College athletics attract students from a variety of backgrounds.]

Merriam-Webster agrees with this usage note, as do AHD and Collins. Webster's NWCD labels the usage in the US athletics [PLURAL NOUN {sometimes with sing. v.}] Lexico has 'usually treated as singular' [ie taking a singular verb form]. ................

Cambridge Dictionary labels the noun [U] (non-count), but does not comment on agreement. Arguably, the only example it gives where the word comes before a verb is a 'mention not use' example, all of which take the singular by default.

.................

R H K Webster's claims that different senses have different default agreements

athletics

  • (usu. used with a pl. v.) athletic sports, as running, rowing, or boxing.

  • [Brit.] track-and-field events.

  • (usu. used with a sing. v.) the practice of athletic exercises; the principles of athletic training.

The overall answer will be 'divided usage, with different agreement favoured by different individuals':

(a) a plural verb form /

(b) a singular verb form /

(c) a free choice /

(d)/(e) either acceptable but most use ... / ...

(g) more often a singular verb form in the UK (Lexico), a plural verb form in the US (Webster's NWCD) / ///

(z) choice is determined by which sense is in play (R H K Webster's' complicating pronouncement).

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