Q: I just read this in the New York Times: “His whereabouts is unknown.” Is “whereabouts” singular? That sentence sounds like a mistake. I realize that not all nouns ending in “s” are plural. Is “whereabouts” one of them?
A: The noun “whereabouts” can be either singular or plural, though the plural is more common now, despite the recommendation in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (“Construe it as a singular”).
We’ve just checked several standard dictionaries, and they all say that it can be singular or plural, but that the plural is more common.
Etymologically, the final “s” originated as an adverbial suffix (like the one at the end of “always” and “besides”), not as a plural ending.
In fact, the noun was “s”-less and apparently singular when it showed up in English in the early 1600s. And the earlier adverb was also “s”-less when it appeared in the early 1300s; it didn’t get the suffix until more than a century later. Here’s the story.
When “whereabout” first showed up in English, it was a two-word interrogative adverbial phrase that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “About where? in or near what place, part, situation, or position? Now rare: replaced by whereabouts.”
The first OED example is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “Quar abute a-bide yee nu?” (“Where about do you abide now?”).
The spelling is clearer in the dictionary’s next example, from William Caxton’s 1484 translation of Aesop’s Fables: “My broder and my frend where aboute is thy sore?”
When “whereabouts” first appeared in the 15th century, it was also a two-word interrogative adverbial phrase that meant the same as the “s”-less version. Oxford says it was formed by adding the adverbial suffix “s” to the older phrase.
The dictionary’s first citation is from Mirk’s Festial, a collection of homilies written around 1450 by Johannus Mirkus, a canon at an Augustinian abbey in Shropshire, England: “Sonne, whereaboutes art þow [thou]?”
The OED’s earliest noun citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, believed to have been first performed in 1606: “Heare not my steps, which they may walke, for feare / Thy very stones prate of my where-about.”
The dictionary’s next example, from a Nov. 17, 1786, letter by the English poet William Cowper, uses it without the hyphen: “I shall derive considerable advantage … from the alteration made in my Whereabout.”
Oxford defines the noun “whereabout” as “the place in or near which a person or thing is; (approximate) position or situation. Now replaced by whereabouts.”
The earliest citation for the noun with an “s” ending dates from the late 18th century, though “s”-less examples continued into the second half of the 19th century. The OED describes the “s” ending here as an adverbial suffix similar to the ones in “hereabouts” and “thereabouts.”
The first Oxford citation for an “s” noun is from a Feb. 15, 1795, letter by Thomas Twining, an Anglican cleric and classical scholar: “By way of giving you the whereabouts of my present political opinions.” (Twining was the grandson of the Thomas Twining who founded the English tea dynasty.)
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary describes the noun “whereabouts” as “plural in form but singular or plural in construction.” Merriam-Webster goes on to explain that it’s usually treated as plural despite some objections by usage writers (like the authors of the Times style guide):
“Because the final -s is an adverbial suffix, not a plural ending (similar to the one at the end of besides), certain usage commentators have insisted on treating whereabouts as a singular noun. In spite of this, you should feel comfortable pairing it with a plural verb; while some have employed singular verbs with this word, the plural (‘her whereabouts were’) has become the regular choice.”