Candidates must be a student

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I recently learned about a praiseworthy initiative, the Google Lime Scholarship for Students with Disabilities, whose eligibility requirements are expressed (in part) as follows:

Candidates must be:

  • A student entering their junior or senior year of undergraduate study [...]
  • [...]
  • A person with a disability (defined as someone who has, or considers themselves to have, a long-term, or recurring, issue [...]) [...]

This goes beyond the divinely sanctioned examples discussed in "'Singular they': God said it, I believe it, that settles it" (9/13/2006); beyond "They are a prophet" (10/21/2004); even beyond "Xtreme singular they" (4/18/2008). In fact, it's not essentially about singular they at all, since the key relationship is the initial "Candidates must be a student".

This is a well-established pattern — "Candidates must be a" has 89,900 Google hits:

Candidates must be a full-time student, either undergraduate or graduate, at MSU …
Superior Court Judge candidates must be a member of the Washington State Bar Association …
Candidates must be a clinical fellow, resident, or a postdoctoral researcher …
Candidates must be a resident of California and have at least a 2.0 grade point average …
All candidates must be a current member of or, at the time of submission, have made bona fide application to the IADR …
Candidates must be a United States citizen or a permanent resident alien …
Candidates must be a current Calvin College student planning to enroll full time in the 2009-10 school year …
Candidates must be a citizen of the European Economic Area (EEA), or a Swiss citizen …
Candidates must be a citizen of a member country of the Commonwealth …

Many of these are from high-class sources. Thus the "eligibility and criteria" for the  Vannevar Bush Award, established by the National Science Board in 1980, specify that "Candidates must be a senior statesperson and an American citizen who meets two or more of the following criteria …"

"Applicants must be a" has 204,000 hits of a similar sort, and "recipients must be a" has 19,000.

In most cases, including the Google Lime Scholarship example, it would have been possible to use plural forms throughout. It's interesting that people so often prefer to mix singular and plural.

The modal must plays some essential role in this, since neither I nor Google can imagine phrases of the form "Candidates are a citizen."



  1. Chris said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 9:23 am

    I find your next-to-last paragraph interesting: I would have preferred "Each candidate must be…", using the singular throughout. The requirements aren't being applied to the candidates as a group, but to each one individually.

    It also removes ambiguity from disjunctive requirements: does "Candidates must be United States citizens or permanent resident aliens" permit a mixed group, or not? (Probably yes, but if you have to consciously think about it, then it could have been expressed more clearly.)

    [(myl) True; but singular noun phrases then force either singular they (which will offend those who haven't gotten the good news), or clunky phrases like "his or her".]

  2. Barbara Partee said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    My hunch: it's most natural to start off talking about "Candidates", "Applicants" etc — and in the cases where there's no problem down the line, that works fine. But then when you get into describing individual requirements, the noun-headed ones are often most natural in singular form, and if it's not right close to the plural subject, you may have to be editing to notice a problem — that could be why the "must" helps, and why putting the requirements in a bulleted list (with the subject just once up at the top) makes it very easy to miss any incompatibility. (The longer such lists get, the more kinds of things easily get in that would be impossible in a simple sentence, not only with singular-plural agreement, but with forms of verbs under lists that start off "Before taking off, you must: …" or "You should check the "yes" box if you have ever: …"))

    As for it being easy to put the predicates into plural form as a way to fix it, that reminds me of examples a bunch of us thought up sometime in the late 60's or early 70's as arguments against the "each-hopping" transformation that was supposed to derive "The men each own a car" from "Each of the men owns a car". One lovely troublesome one (somehow I associate this with Paul Postal, but I can't swear that it was him that thought of it) was what happens if you try to apply "each-hopping" to "Each of the mountains is taller than the one to its south". >> ??? The mountains are each taller than the one? ones? to their south? souths? More generally, we convinced ourselves that there could be no such "transformation", because there is no general way to turn a singular predicate into an equivalent plural predicate — that is, we know how to pluralize a noun (if it's pluralizable at all), but there's no general way to pluralize a whole verb phrase.

    I've noticed that job ads in linguistics sometimes use the (to me very unnatural) expression "The successful applicant will … ". I guess one thing going for it is that it's singular.

  3. mgh said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    I second Chris's preference for "Each candidate must be…" for the following reason:

    The perceived audience is would-be applicants. But, they have no control over who the other candidates are — if the authors said that "candidates must be US citizens" it would sound awkward to this audience, because any single applicant has no way to prevent non-US citizens from trying to apply.

    I suggest classifying this as a counter-example in Pullum's nerdview category — as with the recycling company telling individuals to deposit "mixed cardboard only," here the selections committee would be telling individuals to submit themselves only as part of a larger group ("US citizens", "mixed cardboard") over which they have no immediate influence. So, the authors reject this and settle for a version that switches midway from "nerdview" ("Candidates must be…") to "userview" ("…a US citizen").

  4. marie-lucie said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    "Candidates must be US citizens": it means that non-US applicants will not be recognized as candidates, so their applications will be denied consideration by the deciding person or committee. Just sending an application does not automatically qualify the person to be a "candidate".

    "Each candidate": as mentioned above, this wording causes problems or at least awkwardness when anaphoric pronouns ("he or she", etc) must be used.

  5. comwave said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

    My understanding is that "Xs must be a Y" is from "If you are to be one of Xs, you must be a Y." X replaces "you" of the main clause because it includes "you." A hasty perception that both X and Y are characteristics of "you" may lead to the construction. Meanwhile, in the course of this calculation, the grammar of agreement is gone.

    What's interesting is readers can catch the intention without grammatical compuction. In that sense, I guess the "Xs must be a Y" construction is where symbolic functions of a language overwhelm the grammartical limits.

  6. Trish said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    John E. McIntyre had a great post about the "they" versus "his or her" debate on his blog, You Don't Say , a little while ago. I blogged about this topic as well, quoting McIntyre, so I was pleased to see it turning up here again. McIntryre says we must be "bold, brave and resolute" to defy old grammatical rules, and it seems that academia — or for that matter, any place you would need a candidate — are with him. How strange that these particular groups seem to have quietly agreed upon this exception to the rules.

  7. Paul Goble said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    I attribute some of these examples to incomplete revision of the text to meet some imagined standard of formal writing. The writer first writes, "You must be a …," then considers that "you" is too informal and replaces it with "candidates." The writer then fails to complete the revision; at this point in the writing process, the writer is thinking about tone, not about agreement or audience.

  8. Paul Simon said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    Here is a similar case: "The Olympic Games are an international multi-sport event established for both summer and winter sports." (quoted from wikipedia)

  9. Ellen said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    Replying to Paul Simon. I don't think that's the same issue. I think it's more related to "The committee are" versus "the committee is". A reverse version. "The Olympic Games" is plural in form, so takes the plural verb (for some people, at least), even if the speaker or writer is thinking of it as a single event rather than a collection of games.

  10. marie-lucie said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    Paul, Ellen: compare "The United States is still the most powerful country …".

  11. Kenny Easwaran said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

    Problems with this sort of agreement at a distance (as well as overnegation) often arise with bulleted lists headed by "Do not" or "The following are not permitted".

  12. Karen said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

    Here's one that came to me in a syllabus today:

    Students will create a presentation on a topic of his or her choice…

  13. Stephen Jones said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

    As far as bulleted lists go than I don't think we can consider what comes before the colon to rule the agreement of what comes after.

    The point about the modal is that it doesn't change from singular to plural. So the incompatible parts aren't right next to each other.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    April 17, 2009 @ 7:06 am

    Stephen Jones: The point about the modal is that it doesn't change from singular to plural. So the incompatible parts aren't right next to each other.

    This is true, but it doesn't seem to be crucial. Thus

    ?The candidates seemed to be a fool.

    isn't any better, IMHO, than

    ?The candidates seem to be a fool.

    And "Candidates must be a citizen" doesn't strike me as any better (or worse) than "Candidates are required to be a citizen". (Though both of them strike my internal grammar as weird, which is why I wrote this post in the first place.)

    The critical thing, I think, about the "Nouns must be a noun" construction is that both the plural and the singular forms are talking about properties of generic or at least hypothetical individuals. English can use either singular or plural nouns to do this, and people clearly differ about how strongly they prefer consistent grammatical number to be used in a particular discussion.

  15. Jacob Taylor said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

    In my own personal experience, the wording of the aforementioned sentence, "Candidates must be a student entering their junior or senior year of undergraduate study […]," is oddly phrased.

    "Candidates" is a plural noun; however, "a student" is obviously singular. Therefore, there is not parallel construction in this sentence. As someone mentioned earlier, the phrasing should read, "Each candidate must be a student…"

    Secondly, the author's use of "their" is interesting in the sentence: "their junior or senior year…" Apparently, it is becoming/has become extremely commonplace to refer to one person as "they." This linguistic shift from "they" as a plural pronoun to a singular prounoun is fascinating. While some conservative linguists argue that "they/their" should never be used to describe a single person, other linguists (like Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan) are proponents of the singular "they."

  16. Amelia said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

    @Jacob Taylor: I think the blog post mentions that the primary issue with the construction "Candidates must be a" is not singular they. Pullum writes, "In fact, it's not essentially about singular they at all, since the key relationship is the initial 'Candidates must be a student.'"

    Upon reading the excerpt from the Google scholarship, I originally thought that the use of the semicolon accounted for the inconsistency in pluralization (like Stephen Jones). But the other examples do not have a colon, so I don't think that explains the construction adequately. I think mgh has a good point that the mixing of plural and singular words represents a mixing of two viewpoints, that of the author and that of the readers.

  17. Dena said,

    April 19, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

    By doing a simple Microsoft word grammar check the person that wrote the eligibility requirements would have seen the "incorrect" usage of singular/plural pronouns. I do not have a problem with singular they, and it is becoming more prevalent in writing, but simple lack of consistency using plurals such as the example, "Superior Court Judge candidates must be a member of the Washington State Bar Association …" are ridiculous. Simply reading through the sentence you should be able to notice the lack of agreement.

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