Bare plurals

A plural noun is “bare” if it does not have a determiner, such as the, two, many, all or my. Consider these three examples of the bare plural, rabbits:

  1. Rabbits are mammals.
  2. Rabbits eat lettuce.
  3. Rabbits ate my lettuce yesterday.

The meaning of rabbits is different in each case:

  1. All rabbits are mammals.
  2. Most rabbits eat lettuce.
  3. Some rabbits ate my lettuce yesterday.

The problem with the bare plural is the ambiguity of certain statements. For example:

  • Mosquitoes transmit malaria.

In fact, only female mosquitoes from a minority of species of the Anopheles genus can transmit malaria. Most mosquitoes can’t transmit malaria.

Bare plurals are often used by newspapers to over-generalize, especially in headlines. For example:

  • Women really do prefer rich men (The Times, 5 January 2018)
  • UK men prefer personality over appearance in partners (The Daily Telegraph, 30 November 2017)
  • Minorities distrust companies (USA Today, 14 January 2004)
  • Muslims back faith killings (Sunday Express, 27 July 2008)

The article under the last headline says, “The YouGov survey questioned 600 Muslims in 12 universities across the country and found 32 per cent said resorting to extremist action to honour their beliefs was right.” So Muslims in the headline means only some Muslims – about one third of the students in the survey. The casual reader may assume it means most or all Muslims.

The lesson is: be careful of bare plurals when reading newspapers and writing assignments!