Q: The word “news” looks plural but acts singular. Why is it singular? Was it ever plural?
A: Despite the “s” at the end, “news” is singular in modern English. That’s why we say “The news is good,” not “The news are good.”
Standard dictionaries all treat “news” as a mass (or uncountable) noun that’s used with a singular verb.
Merriam-Webster, for instance, labels the word “plural in form but singular in construction.” Cambridge calls it “an uncountable noun” that “takes a singular verb.” And according to Macmillan, “it is never used in the plural.”
The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says “news” and other mass nouns “look plural but are invariably singular.” Examples include “the news is good” and “good news is always welcome.”
But “news” wasn’t always regarded as invariably singular. We’re fans of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, and we’ve noticed that he uses “news” sometimes as a plural and sometimes as a singular:
“The news was soon all about London” (The Eustace Diamonds, 1871); “when the news were first told to Lady Ushant” (The American Senator, 1875).
In fact, when “news” first appeared in the early 1400s, it was exclusively plural. And though the singular use became established only a century later, the plural use persisted in respectable English until well into the 19th century. Here’s the story.
Since early Old English, “new” has been used as both an adjective (meaning recent) and as a noun for a new person or thing (a usage that survives in expressions like “the shock of the new” and “off with the old, on with the new”).
This ancient word was inherited from other Germanic languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.
But the “news” we’re talking about, as the dictionary explains, was “formed within English” and modeled after the French word nouvelles (new things).
Here’s how “news” is defined in the OED: “The report or account of recent (esp. important or interesting) events or occurrences, brought or coming to one as new information; new occurrences as a subject of report or talk; tidings.”
As we mentioned, the word was originally treated as a plural. The OED’s earliest plural example, a reference to “gracious and joyous newes,” is from an elaborately courtly letter written in 1417 to King Henry V by his Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The phrase cited has a distant plural antecedent.
However, these later OED citations more clearly demonstrate the plural use: “the newes of the seid Lord Malpertuis, which ben [be] these” (1489); “troubled with those newes” (1523); “These newes were sodainly [suddenly] spred” (1581); “these glad newes” (1621); “amazing News of Charles at once were spread” (1685); “all News that come hither” (1717); “news of your health are still worse” (1776); “There are bad news from Palermo” (1820); “There are never any news” (1846).
This plural use of “news,” the OED says, is “now archaic” and is found only in Indian English.
The dictionary includes this modern Indian example: “My news are good.” From Indian and British English, a 1979 handbook by Paroo Nihalani et al. (The same handbook is also cited for the use of “news” as a count noun meaning “a piece or item of news,” a usage the OED says is now found chiefly in Caribbean and Indian English. The quotation: “This is a good news.”)
It’s interesting that during much of the time that “news” appeared in the plural (as in “news are”), it was also appearing in the singular (“news is”), a usage that dates from the early 1500s and gradually became dominant.
The OED’s first citation for the singular use is from a letter written in 1532: “news occurraunt in theis partes sence my lait lettres hir is noon [none].” Published in Letters of the Cliffords (1992), edited by R. W. Hoyle.
The dictionary’s later examples of the singular construction include these: “ye newes therof was brought” (possibly 1566); “When Newes is printed” (1631); “there is no News” (1664); “The stocks are as the news is” (1711); “the news was fresh” (1785); “Was there any news?” (1828); “The next news was …” (1897). Singular examples continue up to the present.
Why has the singular usage emerged as standard while the plural has become archaic? This may be because, as the OED says, the singular use today has a wider meaning. Besides just “tidings” or accounts “brought or coming to one as new information,” it also means “now esp. such information as published or broadcast.”
This is particularly apparent in one of the dictionary’s later examples, from a book of political humor: “Most news about government sounds as if it were federally mandated” (Parliament of Whores, by P. J. O’Rourke, 1992).
Media-related uses of “news” proliferated in the 20th century. During World War I, according to OED citations, a usage emerged in which “a person, thing, or place regarded as worthy of discussion or of reporting by the media” was said to be “news.”
The first citation is from “The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat,” a short story by Rudward Kipling published in 1917: “The great Baron Reuter himself … flashed that letter in full to the front, back, and both wings of this scene of our labours. For Huckley [the village] was News.”
And beginning in the early 1920s, people began using “the news” (the OED says “the” is usually included) to mean a newsreel or a news-related radio or television broadcast. Many familiar phrases emerged too, including these from the 1930s: “news coverage,” “news media,” and “news conference.”
Of course we can’t forget the “good news … bad news” formula, which is sometimes the setup for a joke. Oxford says it’s used in “expressing an unfortunate or undesirable downside to an otherwise welcome development or state of affairs.”
The OED’s examples begin in the 1950s, but last year the language researcher Stephen Goranson reported a much earlier example to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list. It appeared in a humorous anecdote, headlined “A Colloquy,” in the Nov. 3, 1871, issue of the New-Orleans-Republic:
Shortly after it became known that Hon. Thomas W. Conway … was attacked with yellow fever, one prominent citizen said to another whom he met:
“I have some good news to tell you.”
“What is it?” …
“It is that Conway … is very sick with yellow fever.”
The second party then said in rejoinder: “I have some bad news to tell you.”
“What is that?”
“It is that Dr. Holcombe is attending Conway, and he is going to get him well.”