plural nouns


Steve from Hong Kong writes:

When should I use material (singular) and materials (plural)?

I've seen the phrases materials development and teaching material. So when should I use the plural form?


Roger Woodham replies:

material / materials as nouns

In your two examples, Steve, material and materials feature as part of compound nouns relating to the teaching of a school subject. It would always be plural in the first example, materials development, because we are thinking of a range of materials or of a large project which has many elements.

In the second example, it could be singular or plural. We speak of both teaching material or teaching materials, depending on how narrowly or broadly we are thinking of them.

Whether we use material in the singular or the plural depends on the context of use.

When we are thinking of equipment or a number of things that you need for a particular activity, it could be used in the singular, but would normally be used in the plural:

  • The flat needed a good spring clean so I went out and bought lots of cleaning materials.
  • I keep all my writing materials in a special compartment in my briefcase.

When material refers to ideas that you can use as a basis for an article, a book, a play or a film, it is normally used in the singular:

  • I found some useful material for my book on lifestyles in the Sunday papers.
  • For his latest film, he wrote a good deal of the material himself.

Note that even when material is used in the singular here, it has a plural sense.



material / immaterial as adjectives

Note that material can also be used as an adjective.

  • Quite early on in the campaign against Osama Bin Laden, the Americans were saying that they had sufficient material evidence to bring him to court for the 11 September atrocity.

Material here has a quite specific meaning and refers to evidence or information which is relevant to a court case.

The negative adjectival form immaterial is used much more widely and refers to things which are not considered important to what you are talking about:

  • I just had to have the new Renault - the cost was immaterial.
  • Whether he wants to go to the spa or not is immaterial
    - his doctors say it is necessary.

collective nouns

Nouns which refer to a group of people or things are often called collective nouns. Some of the most common include:


The names of many organisations are also collective nouns. For example:

  • The BBC
  • The British Council

When you use a collective noun, it may be followed by either a singular or plural verb, depending on whether you are thinking of the group as a unit, in which case it will be singular, or as a number of individuals, in which case it will be plural:

  • My family consists of me, my two brothers and my mum.
  • Before the recession, my brother's family were quite well off, but now they are hard up.
  • The government has said it will give more money to hospitals and schools.
  • The government are determined not to let their popularity with the voters slip.
  • The class was / were good academically, but the football team was /were well beaten.
  • The BBC is / are planning to introduce 35 minute news broadcasts in the spring.
  • The British Council have / has offices in over a hundred countries worldwide.



plural nouns

Nouns relating to certain things people wear, certain things they use or certain things they value are normally found in the plural. They include:


These nouns are normally used with plural verbs.

  • In Mexico, the jeans I had taken were too tight and too hot, but the shorts were perfect.
  • Nail clippers and tweezers are essential items in every washbag.
  • I found my way here with no problems. The directions you gave me were excellent.
  • His manners are appalling and in themselves constitute sufficient grounds for divorce.
  • My thanks and my apologies were gratefully received.

Note that when you want to refer to single pieces of clothing or single items of use, you must insert a pair of / two pairs of / etc in front of the noun:

  • I took a pair of shorts out of the drawer and put them in my suitcase.
  • I had a pair of field-glasses in my cupboard so I gave them to Tom for birdwatching.

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