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Singular Expression

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“To improve your readers’ comprehension and ensure they take the appropriate action:

  • Use a singular noun rather than a plural noun. Address one person rather than a group.”

              —IRM Style Guide

Cute, eh? The IRS Style Guide uses the plural noun readers and its plural pronoun their to advise an individual IRM writer to use the singular. I only wish I could find that to be the only instance in which the IRM Style Guide openly violates its own style advice.

Perhaps the IRM Style Guide excuses its violation of its own rule by mistaking the audience of an IRM to be a group of more than a single individual reader? Eh, maybe, except that is generally the case of just about any bit of writing other than this weblog. Like, the mere act of publication of any content with an intent to distribute versus placing the matter in a private correspondence to a named person by definition presumes the plural. But that doesn’t mean that we read an IRM in the aggregate, even when studying it in a professional meeting. Nor do we generally take our “appropriate action” in the collective unless that collective (e.g., an employer) is cited as a singular. All in all, if the Style Guide has some justification for its own violation, then it ought at least state the exceptions to its rule, with its own advice fitting one of those exceptions.

Besides, here the IRM Style Guide’s advice seems to suggest style over accuracy. If I am writing an IRM on the application of a particular pension rule, then generally yes, it would be more appropriate for me to write, “The agent should analyze the plan for its compliance . . .” rather than writing, “Agents should analyze plans for their compliance . . .” That, despite the fact that in all cases an audit will involve more than one IRS representative, if but for review, and despite the fact that the policy an agent applies to one pension plan ought be applied comparably to all plans; so the plural is not without an interpretation that could make sense. Thing is, any such interpretation is not the intended meaning in this instance, the situation at hand being an individual agent’s review of a single pension plan. So then, the real reason for us to choose the singular is not a matter of written language style, but rather a matter of accurate expression of the actual meaning of what is being said.

Like, how about when the most accurate expression of the actual meaning necessitates the plural. For instance, an IRM addressing the application of a rule to a merger or aggregation of two or more pension plans can express the rule using singular nouns by first describing the application of the rule for one plan taking into account each other plan, then turn to each other plan and repeat the rule accordingly. The clearest and most direct approach is to represent the plural as it stands, something like “Pension plans that are aggregated should apply such-and-such a rule in the following manner . . . .” Whereas doing as the IRM Style Guide says and not as the IRM Style Guide does will actually stray from “plain English.” Like, i ain’t plain if it ain’t the truth.

In lieu of a blanket rule that always chooses the singular noun over the plural without exception, do this: When writing of a singular person, place or thing, use a singular noun; when writing of a plural, use the plural.


//] - so to speak

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Written by macheide

1 May 2015 at 7:00 pm

Posted in so to speak

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One Response

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  1. I should note, I suppose, that the IRM Style Guide itself deserves only part of the criticism this post implies. Truth is, that guide borrows quite heavily – frequently rather clumsily – from the Federal Plain Language Guidelines. Which similarly advises addressing a singular individual, yet refers to that individual in the plural as “readers.”

    Why not let’s add a new rule for our writing: Don’t re-make mistakes made by a source.


    1 May 2015 at 7:40 pm


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