English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

Is it “is”? Or is it “are”?

Q: I recently wrote this sentence: “Is celebrities sending prayers newsworthy?” I went back and forth between “is” and “are.” Neither sounded totally right, nor totally wrong. What do you think?

A: Your choice was correct: “Is celebrities’ sending prayers newsworthy?” Note that we’ve added a possessive apostrophe to “celebrities.”

The noun “celebrity” has an interesting history, which we’ll get to later, but let’s first look at the sentence you’ve asked about.

In this sentence, “celebrities’ sending prayers” is a noun phrase. “Sending” is a gerund here—a verb form that functions as a noun—so the possessive apostrophe is called for.

“Sending” (not “celebrities”) is the subject of the verb, which should be “is.” In fact, “celebrities’” functions as a modifier; drop it and you have “Is sending prayers newsworthy?”

A parallel case would be “Is mom’s cooking newsworthy?” The gerund “cooking” is the subject of the verb. Drop the modifier (the possessive adjective “mom’s”) and you have “Is cooking newsworthy?”

Still, correct or not, the phraseology of that “celebrities” sentence is awkward enough to deserve a rewrite: “Is it newsworthy that celebrities send prayers?”

If you’d like to read more about gerunds, we’ve discussed them several times on our blog, including posts in 2011 and 2012

Now, let’s look at the word “celebrity,” which meant fame or notoriety when it entered English sometime before 1600. By the early 1600s, it could also refer to a solemn rite, a ceremony, or a celebration.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that “celebrity” took on the sense used in your question: a celebrated person or public figure.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Ogilvies, an 1849 novel by the English writer Dinah Maria Mulock Craik: Did you see any of those ‘celebrities,’ as you call them?”

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