I have a question about the following construction and which instance is correct.

  • Selecting an appropriate study topic(s).
  • Selecting appropriate study topic(s).

When it is both singular and plural due to the parenthesized optional part, should I use the an because of thinking of what follows as being the singular (that is, study topic)?

Or should I omit the an because of thinking of what of what follows as being in the plural (that is, study topics)?


7 Answers 7


According to The Chicago manual of style Q&A,

A term ending in “(s)” is both plural and singular. If you must use such a device (and it can be a useful shorthand), you have to be prepared to adjust the surrounding context as necessary: for example, “the award(s) is (are) accounted for.” A parenthetical plural verb must correspond to the parenthetical ending. But that’s an awkward example. In general, avoid such shorthand unless it can be used simply and effectively, as in the following example:

Place an “about the author(s)” statement on the copyright page (usually page iv).

In other words, the use of this shorthand might be useful in examples such as,

  • The identification number(s) of the prisoner(s) must be logged upon arrival.
  • The identification number(s) of the prisoner(s) must be logged upon his (their) arrival.

However, in other cases such as the OP's, it can be ambiguous and confusing as there's no consistent way to maintain singularity or plurality thanks to the presence of the determiner, an. In such instances, it is best to reword the sentence to something along the lines of,

  • Selecting one or more appropriate study topics.

I agree with Dave Nealon. The plural form covers the singular meaning because it's used as a class. For example, we say "one or more objects" to mean "one object or several objects". We read this quite naturally and have no problem with the lack of agreement in number implied by "one objects". As Dave points out, the plural doesn't preclude zero or one of the objects.

I find "one or more object(s)" to be much harder to read, as I have to parse the phrase with both possibilities. The parentheses are a distraction. As @coleopterist points out, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends against using it unless it is simple and effective. I would argue that it isn't simple enough, and using the plural is more effective.

Use of (s) might be necessary in legal documents, which have to be very precise and cover all the possible meanings. In ordinary writing, in graphical interfaces, and in technical documentation, I don't think it's necessary at all. I suspect that programmers want to be more precise than is necessary when they use this form in graphical interfaces. As a technical writer, I've always used the plural, and recommended it in our graphical interfaces.


In most cases, I think either the singular or the plural will work fine. Why clutter it up with both or with (s)? Using the plural form "Selecting appropriate topics" doesn't preclude the possibility of finding only one appropriate topic--or even none.


I agree that it is an awkward way of dealing with the problem. It would have been preferable to have had something like Selecting an appropriate study topic or topics. As it is, it’s a matter of choosing between two evils, but the second seems preferable. An followed by a possible plural in the first looks odd, but dropping the article allows the reader two interpretations. One is Selecting appropriate study topics. The other is Selecting appropriate study topic, which can be read as an abbreviated form.


The second one is correct because the default manner of "appropriate study topic(s)" is singular one.

  • "appropriate study topic(s)" is both singular and plural as seen by the "s" mentioned in brackets and hence the implied confusion with respect to the correct answer.
    – Mohit
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 6:30
  • When the plural or singular would not be specified, we use simple manner of word, with nothing included.
    – omid saba
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 7:11
  • 2
    The comments on the question explain why this answer is wrong. Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 8:41

If you're really fussy, you can always put the 'an' in brackets as well. That would signify that the upcoming word may or may not be plural, as the (s) does, adding more clarity to the overall sentence. However, the first example you have given is most adequate, as it agrees with the singular form of the noun i.e. study topics. The '(s)' is more for clarification for readers and does not really have a syntactical quality.


Considering the responses here, as a whole, are "tl;dr", my point may have been made already, however consider thus:

The material included in the parenthesis, being supplemental, is considered not to be an actual component to the sentence, thereby being excluded from the rules regulating the rest of the sentence. I would then have to logically conclude that the inclusion of merely a potential plurality does not merit the supercession of the established noun quantity.

Source: http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/parens.asp SEE RULE 4.

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