Etymology Usage

Into the woods

Q: I was reading Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems and came across these lines: “With the ongoing havoc / the woods this morning is / almost unnaturally still.” My dictionary says a woodland can be referred to with either the singular “wood” or the plural “woods.” But can the plural noun take a singular verb?

A: Let’s begin by saying, as we’ve said many times before on the blog, that poets are allowed to break the rules of grammar and usage in the interest of art. But did Berry, in those lines from Sabbaths, 1999, break any rules?

Not really. His use of the plural “woods” with the singular “is” may be unusual, but it’s within the stretchy confines of standard English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says both “wood” and “woods” can be used to refer to a forested area.

“The singular wood usually denotes a delineated area of medium size, larger than a grove and smaller than a forest,” the usage guide says.

M-W gives several examples, including this one by John Bartlow Martin in the June 22, 1957, issue of the Saturday Evening Post: “a cornfield, a field of oats, a wood.”

The plural “woods,” the dictionary says, usually “refers to the forest generally, without the suggestion of a delineated area that is implicit in the singular wood.”

“When used in this way,” M-W adds, “woods is construed as plural.”

The usage guide gives this example from Tennyson’s 1860 poem “Tithonus”: “The woods decay, the woods decay and fall.”

However, Merriam-Webster’s says the plural “woods” is sometimes used in the same way as the singular “wood”—that is, as a delineated forested area of medium size.

When “woods” is used this way, according to M-W, “it is usually (though not always) construed as singular.”

The usage guide gives two examples of this sense of “woods” treated as a singular and one example of it treated as a plural.

Here’s an example of “woods” used with the singular article “a,” from James Michener’s 1953 novella The Bridges at Toko-Ri: “more than one hundred communists had moved out of a woods and into a frozen road.”

The noun “wood,” by the way, is one of our oldest words, dating back Anglo-Saxon times.

When it was first recorded in Old English around 725, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was spelled widu or wiodu, and it simply meant a tree.

Over the years, “wood” has taken on many other meanings, including a forest, the material that the trunk of a tree is made of, and a golf club with a wooden head.

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