Q: ’Tis the season, I suppose, but twice in the past week, I’ve heard the word “politics” used as though it were plural. Here, for example, is Mayor Bloomberg on the recent Susan G. Komen flap: “Politics have no place in health care.” I’m an editorial cartoonist and I always refer to “politics” in the singular: Can “politics” really be like “deer”?
A: “Politics” can be used with either a singular or a plural verb, depending on your meaning. In general, it’s singular. It’s plural only when it means a particular set of political beliefs.
Here are examples of the word used both ways:
Singular: “Politics is my favorite subject” … “Politics has muddied the waters.”
Plural: “I like him personally but his politics are repellant” … “Dad’s politics have changed.”
We agree with you, and think the word should have been used with a singular verb in that statement by the New York City mayor: “Politics has no place in health care.”
Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) explains the difference this way: “Politics may be either singular or plural. Today it is more commonly singular than plural (politics is a dirty business), although formerly the opposite was true. As with similar -ics words denoting disciplines of academic and human endeavor, politics is treated as singular when it refers to the field itself (all politics is local) and as plural when it refers to a collective set of political stands (her politics were too mainstream for the party’s activists).”
And here’s how Pat discusses words like “politics” in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:
“Figuring out the mathematics of a noun can be tricky. Take the word mathematics. Is it singular or plural? And what about all those other words ending in ics—economics, ethics, optics, politics, and so on? Fortunately, it doesn’t take a PhD in mathematics to solve this puzzle.
“If you’re using an ics word in a general way (as a branch of study, say), it’s singular. If you’re using an ics word in a particular way (as someone’s set of beliefs, for example), it’s plural.”
Here are the examples given in the book: “Politics stinks,” said Mulder. … “Mulder’s politics stink,” said Scully. … Statistics isn’t a popular course at the academy. … Alien-abduction statistics are scarce.
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