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Tilting at Windmills

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May 2, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

USAGE QUERY....Linguistic question of the day: Is netroots singular or plural? I changed my mind two or three times in the previous post before settling on singular. Comments?

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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Multi-dimensional - we're going to need a whole new form of conjugation!

Posted by: mroberts on May 2, 2008 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

What's the status of the word "grassroots"? I would say you just find out and copy that.

Posted by: Cain on May 2, 2008 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

Plural, same as "roots". In addition to being correct, the plural doesn't ignore the netroots' diversity the way the singular does.

Posted by: Boronx on May 2, 2008 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

Plural, of course. Besides the fact that a plural word ("roots") remains plural when it becomes compound, it's also the case that the major liberal blogs don't march in lock-step, despite what some claim about the Great Orange Satan.

Posted by: Joe Buck on May 2, 2008 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

I would vote for plural, because even though there's never a singular "netroot" a plurality is implied in the word.

And, because it sounds more betterer.

Posted by: thersites on May 2, 2008 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK


has it as an 'uncountable' noun.


"A noun that cannot be used freely with numbers or the indefinite article, and which therefore takes no plural form."

Posted by: Chris Jarrett on May 2, 2008 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

I think you use it like "States" in "United States of America." So you'd say "the netroots" like you'd say "the States" and not "some netroots," similarly to "some states."

Posted by: Swan on May 2, 2008 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

What does "netroots" mean?

Posted by: acefranze on May 2, 2008 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

Sound a bit like sheep being both plural and singular.

Posted by: ET on May 2, 2008 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

Netroots is neither sinular or plural, it's androgenous. Or ambidextrous. Your choice, all that counts is that you feel good about it.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 2, 2008 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

Even if the word netroots is plural, you are using it correctly in your post, since the subject above is the word netroots, which is always singular.

Posted by: Anon on May 2, 2008 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

Re: my earlier explanation

I'm not sure if technically that's called singular or plural. I disagree with Chris Jarrett- I think an uncountable noun is more like "water" or "sand"- I think "netroots" might be one of what are called collective nouns.

Posted by: Swan on May 2, 2008 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

To show the difference better between what I am talking about and what Jarrett is talking about-- you could say "some water" or "some sand" but you wouldn't say "some netroots" or, when you were talking about the entire United States of Americs, "some States."

Posted by: Swan on May 2, 2008 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

Swan. Time for Meds. Plural.

Posted by: nurse ratched on May 2, 2008 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

I think you can decide if, as you use it, the word means the individuals who make up the netroots or is a collective noun like herd. Usage is mixed, but favors plural. Here is from The Economist:
"most of the “netroots” (internet grassroots activists) are not, as you might imagine, tech-savvy 20-somethings."

Here's a NY Times blog:
"a sign that the “netroots” don’t understand "

The Atlantic:
"Fundamentally, what the netroots want is a Fighting Progressive."

On the other hand, I find it as two words and treated as singular in the Washington Post, which strikes me as stylistically unsupportable. If the noun is roots alone, surely it has to be plural?
" The common assumption is that the Net roots is monolithic and full of ideologues. "

The Weekly Standard treats it as singular -- which may be a reason not to -- clearly using it as a collective noun:
""the Netroots" held its annual convention."

Even the Chicago Style people will tell you that with an emerging term like this that usage has not defined one way or another, the important thing is to be consistent. Eventually it may be settled by usage, but it is clearly not there yet.

Posted by: peter Alexander on May 2, 2008 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

I guess collective knowns like "the States" and "the netroots" are grammatically singular, because you never use a plural article like some or many with them. But they're funny because you don't use a strictly singular indefinite article like a with them. You're clearly literally describing a collection of States or metaphorical roots, its just that the grammar kind of treats them like singulars because it's the single collection, not the multiple roots, that are more directly being referred to.

Posted by: Swan on May 2, 2008 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

Bottom line: a collection of something is a single thing. So a proper name describing a collection of something is singular.

Posted by: Swan on May 2, 2008 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

Scuuse my ignorance, but who are the Chicago Style people? Do I have to write like them, or dress like them.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 2, 2008 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

If you are referring to it as a single community or a movement it's singular.

"The netroots is a revolution in participatory democracy"

If you are referring to it as a group of individual units it's plural.

"The netroots are not united"

But don't listen to me. I almost flunked freshmen english.

Posted by: B on May 2, 2008 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK


i.e. - "The netroots ARE," not "the netroots IS"

Posted by: chuck on May 2, 2008 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

who are the Chicago Style people? Do I have to write like them, or dress like them.

Actually, they're a blues band. Little Walter played harp with them for a while.

Posted by: thersites on May 2, 2008 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Chuck, I just thought of that ("the States are in disarray"; "the netroots are in disarray") but I think what explains it is, in that case, you've actually started using the plural noun describing the things the proper names "States" or "netroots" refer to a collection of. There are actually two nouns, and you're using a different one.

Posted by: Swan on May 2, 2008 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

The netroots are angry about Bush. The Who are performing in Chicago on Wednesday. The band is known for its netroots fans, who are, like, crazy-avid.

Posted by: Anon on May 2, 2008 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

Would the netroot make any sense at all? I don't think it would. Then again, pant as singular of pants doesn't either, at least to my ear, and it makes verbs conjugate plural doesn't it?

Perhaps someone should try on a netrootsuit and see how it fits.

Posted by: chiggins on May 2, 2008 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

It ends with an 's'. That's good enough for me under most circumstances.

Posted by: bobbyp on May 2, 2008 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Cain, above, has it right. If "grassroots", from which "netroots" is derived, is used as both singular and plural, why, then, would not the same rule hold true.

Posted by: on May 2, 2008 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

The way I figure is that it's a new word (albeit an annoying word) and English is flexible enough to allow you to 1) coin a new adjective, 2) twist it into a noun (really an abbreviated form of "netroots movement"), and then 3) start throwing it into a variety of sentences in self-referential blog post rants and boring newspaper articles where it's forced to be singular or plural.

If most people can understand the usage without stumbling over it then you are probably OK.

Posted by: B on May 2, 2008 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

I vote for plural. (I am a copy editor of scholarly work.)

Posted by: Lynn Lightfoot on May 2, 2008 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

I'll have to go with plural like "data." The singular would be netroot, but you would use it like datum: generally saying "a" datum/netroot and not "the" datum/netroot. You can only refer to a netroot as a singular member within a group, so "the netroot" just doesn't work...

Posted by: rusrus on May 2, 2008 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: Rik Wenger on May 2, 2008 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

The problem with looking to grassroots for a comparison is a difference in usage. Grassroots is rarely used as a noun; it's usually used as an adjective.

Just the opposite with netroots. Still, going with what "sounds" right to my ear, I'd say, "The netroots aren't happy," instead of "The netroots isn't happy."

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on May 2, 2008 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

The Who are performing in Chicago on Wednesday

Where? And how can I get tickets!!!

Posted by: drjimcooper on May 2, 2008 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

I betcha William Safire knows.

Posted by: Moke on May 2, 2008 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

What does it mean?

Posted by: Rainborowe on May 2, 2008 at 2:31 PM | PERMALINK


A word that is plural in form but names a single object or idea takes a singular verb.

Fifteen million dollars was the price paid to France for the Louisiana Territory. (Fifteen million dollars is one sum of money; hence was is correct.)

Northwest Passage is considered one of Kenneth Roberts' most important novels.
Physics is a subject I plan to avoid.
Ten miles is quite a hike.
Nine times seven is sixty-three. (The plural is permissible.)
Nine and eight is seventeen. (The plural is permissible.)
Eighteen inches is half a yard.

Fractions, per cents, and such words as all, more, most, some, and part take a singular verb if the object of the following of is singular and a plural verb if the object of the following of is plural.

Half of the pie has been eaten.
Half of the cookies have been eaten.
Some of the work has been done.
Some of the members have done nothing.
Eighty per cent of the student body has voted.
Eighty per cent of the students have voted.
The number, as a rule, takes a singular verb; a number takes a plural verb.
The number of my records is rapidly diminishing.
A number of my records were broken at the dance last Saturday.
ALMOST ALWAYS SINGULAR: civics, economics, gallows, mathematics, measles, mumps, news, physics, the United States, whereabouts
ALMOST ALWAYS PLURAL: acoustics, ashes, athletics, barracks, clothes, golf links, gymnastics, oats, pincers, pliers, proceeds, riches, scissors, shears, suds, tactics, thanks, trousers
SINGULAR OR PLURAL: amends, means, politics

Wooley, Scott, Tressler--Handbook of Writing and Speaking

Posted by: Luther on May 2, 2008 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

Are the Who on first?

Posted by: thersites on May 2, 2008 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

Or are they coming on after Chicago Style?

Posted by: thersites on May 2, 2008 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, my earliest pre-blog -pre-usenet forum wars involved grammar!

Who cares? Working in a technical field I have learned to care very much about proper nomenclature and grammar. Computer languages are highly sensitive to grammar and spelling so I'm pretty pedantic about it. I dislike inarticulate people who always reply "well you know what I meant."

Interestingly 'grass' is also one of those "mass (or uncountable) nouns. Unless specifically speaking of grass varieties one usually does not say "Give me five grasses, or give me one grass."

But as mentioned before "grassroots" is not a noun and yet "netroots" is. "Net" is also countable where "grass" is not.

So is "netroots" an uncountable noun? Beats me. We have to wait and see how it is used.

Since "netroots" is a new word prescriptivist grammar would not include it and descriptivist grammarians (such as the Chicago Manual of Style) will wait to see how people actually use it.

Personally I think using nounified adjectives is verbicide, meaning the killing of words, but fighting it seems to be a lost cause.

Im my lifetime "baud" and "they" used as first person indeterminate gender are the biggest examples of verbicide I've seen.

Posted by: Tripp on May 2, 2008 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

I think I was over-complicating it in my comments.

I think the better answer is that there are two different versions of the same word, one that uses "is" and one that uses "are," and both are equally correct (just like, although it's a little weird, "irregardless" and "regardless" have both come to be treated as meaning the same thing, and as equally correct).

It's important to remember, however, that the two versions are not the same thing:

"The United States is a great country."
"The United States are in disarray."

Both of these are correct, but you couldn't substitute "are" for "is" in the first sentence.

A few people asked what it means- the netroots is the online version of the grassroots- and if you don't know what that means, it's political mobilization that doesn't come from an establishment party organ, or from some old organization, but rather from "the bottom up," from just regular Janes and Joes self-starting some political action on something they are interested in, putting something together and/or getting involved on their own.

The blogosphere is a good example of what is meant by the netroots; MoveOn.org probably hits even a little closer to the mark.

Well, thanks for putting us through the pedantic hoops here, Kevin!

Posted by: Swan on May 2, 2008 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

"The netroots is an interesting concept, because for our purposes, is doesn't mean quite what a lot of people think it means..."

"The netroots are in disarray today..."

Posted by: Swan on May 2, 2008 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

nutroots are plural, same as gasroots.

Posted by: not now on May 2, 2008 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

The liberal left netroots have flocked to support conservative moderate candidates like a school of fish being netted by bottom trawling.

Posted by: Brojo on May 2, 2008 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

I avoid saying netroots.

Chicago Style, is that like doggy style?

Posted by: nemo on May 2, 2008 at 4:16 PM | PERMALINK

In Google, I get 9,300 hits for "Netroots is" and 11,200 for "netroots are." That's pretty close to a tie. Feel free to use either singular or plural -- you'll have lots of company.

Posted by: BarryG on May 2, 2008 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK


Is it a crime to kill a mocking baud?

Posted by: thersites on May 2, 2008 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK

There might be some objections to my first sentence in the 3:46 PM comments as an example, so I'll substitute

"The netroots is a force to be reckoned with..."


"The netroots is great to check out..."

with no more justification than that a lot of people have been using it as something akin to an uncapitalized, proper-noun, in just this way.

Also at 3:44 I wrote this: "The United States are in disarray." At second thought, it may be more proper to just never use "the United States" with "are," but I bet at least some of the experts may consider that arguable, and in any event, colloquially a lot of people use it with "are" in sentences like that.

Posted by: Swan on May 2, 2008 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

I would argue that, since it refers to a group of people, "netroots" is in fact a collective noun, like "committee," "minority," or "posse." Such words normally can be correctly treated as either singular or plural.

The curious thing here is that, unlike most collective nouns, "netroots" is a plural word, because it is derived from a metaphor--akin not only to "grassroots," but also to "roots" (ala Alex Haley).

If the term referred to multiple "roots," then it would be a simple plural. The same would be true if each of the individuals it referred to were, metaphorically, an individual "root." An example of a term that works this way would be "old flame." Each former lover is a singular "old flame," but a gathering of them (shudder) would be plural "old flames." ("My old flames want to kill me, but my posse has my back.")

Here, though, the online community (another collective noun) of politically engaged liberals is referred to collectively by the plural word "netroots." Like other collective nouns, the singular usage can be correct ("the netroots is up in arms" or "the netroots really wants this nomination fight to end"), but so can the plural ("the netroots are divided" or "the netroots don't even know what to call themselves").

In short, as in so many other situations, you should do whatever feels right. Don't worry; the netroots has all got your back.

Posted by: FearItself on May 2, 2008 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

From American Heritage

Since netroots is a combination of internet and grassroots, it seems the same usage rule should apply. They can be used correctly with singular or plural verbs. So it seems the context and the idea expressed should determine which is used.

grass roots

(used with a sing. or pl. verb)

1. People or society at a local level rather than at the center of major political activity. Often used with the.
2. The groundwork or source of something.

Posted by: Chris Brown on May 2, 2008 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

Would this help?
If you are able to substitute a singular pronoun ("it") in the sentence you are writing, then you are using "netroots" as a singular noun. "An example of the netroots is..."
If you have to substitute a plural pronoun ("they"), then you are using "netroots" as a collective noun. "The netroots are an increasing force..."

Posted by: Doug on May 2, 2008 at 10:29 PM | PERMALINK

The deer is in the yard.
The deer are in the yard.

Posted by: waffle on May 2, 2008 at 11:35 PM | PERMALINK

Both. As in...

The government is...
The goverment are...

Depends how monolithic an entity you wish to present... Is it a collective singular or a collection of actors?

Posted by: snicker-snack on May 3, 2008 at 4:18 AM | PERMALINK

It would seem to be singular to me, since who would say netroot? "Net" isn't the most significant part, and the semantics clearly seems to suggest a single group, as confused as that semantics may be when held up to reality.

Posted by: Jimm on May 3, 2008 at 4:38 AM | PERMALINK

A more interesting query:

Is the word "web" (or "Web") to mean the internet non-U?

I vote yes.

("Website," however, is U.)

Posted by: Nancy Irving on May 4, 2008 at 4:48 AM | PERMALINK

It is somewhat flexible, I suppose, but I have to go with collective singular. Even though the netroots is diverse, we use the definite article. That is telling. It is, as a previous commenter noted, the standard. You would never say "a netroot." So it is like any other uncountable, say "water." But while "some water" does roll off the tongue, "some netroot/s" does not. So it pushes toward the singular. As an ESL teacher, by the way, the English way of dealing with number is, I can guarantee, the hardest thing for a non-native speaker to absorb. As we (most of us, clearly) struggle as natives, this proves it once again. You made the right call.

Posted by: Robert Young on May 4, 2008 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

ET said, "Sound a bit like sheep being both plural and singular." Someone else also mentioned 'herd'.

Freudian slip?

Posted by: ghost2 on May 4, 2008 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK

Plural in the UK, singular in the States.

Posted by: nicteis on May 5, 2008 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: bad credit loans on December 30, 2009 at 3:24 AM | PERMALINK

Just questioning if eBay permits you to market concert tickets on the internet? Do you know if there are any restrictions depending on what country you're in?

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and if it matters, the concert is inside of this coming month

Thanks ahead of time for your advice.

Posted by: cedssheance on September 18, 2010 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK
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