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I am writing down this sentence in my diary:

Her words are an encouragement to me

But then, I think, is should be used, because I am considering her words as a whole thing. Yet, I am not very sure if I am correct if I write this,

Her words is an encouragement to me

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    Can you think of an example when a plural ending in s, such as "someone's words" would be treated in English as as single concept i.e. using 'is' instead of 'are'? I can't. – Tom B May 3 '17 at 12:07
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    We often resort to saying "the speaker is considering {the plural thing} as a single whole" when explaining failure of number agreement between noun and verb. But I think it's fair to say that you will never be wrong if the subject noun and verb agree in number. – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 3 '17 at 12:07
  • It is worth noting that we do not give the speaker the same benefit of the doubt when the verb is plural. Her smile make me happy would be considered ungrammatical. We wouldn't justify the verb by saying "the speaker is probably thinking of many smiles, or many occasions where she smiled, not just one smile". – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 3 '17 at 12:14
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    @Tom, you are completely missing Tᴚoɯɐuo's point. make is the 3rd-person plural form of the verb, as is made clear in the comment. – TonyK May 3 '17 at 16:57
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    You're right, I see his point now. – Tom B May 3 '17 at 18:30
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"Words" is a plural noun and not a mass noun. You can't use a singular verb after it.

  • Her words are an encouragement to me. (correct)

You cannot consider her words as a whole thing when you are speaking about each single distinct element creating a whole and thus encouraging you, but you can do this in informal English (mostly spoken English) if you consider the words a senseless, pointless, obnoxious or meaningless thing:

  • Her words (What she said) means nothing to me. I don't care even if she's down on her knees before me.

Examples of such usage:

  1. Dead Man's Gold by Cameron Judd - "Her words means nothing. She'd naturally cover for her husband."
  2. The Dark Hatred. SWEET GUN'S - "She knows he is joking and his words means nothing but then why did he say those words with such a serious face."

If you wish to speak about a single entity you can use this words depending on the context:

  • Speech
  • Comment
  • Remark
  • Utterance
  • Statement
  • Advice
  • Compliment
  • Suggestion
  • Jabbering
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    You seem to be saying that "Her words means nothing to me" is OK. Are you? – AakashM May 3 '17 at 13:53
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    I don't buy it. Even if the words are completely meaningless to you, even if you have not been listening well enough to remember how many words there were or what any of them sounded like, you still recognized that she spoke multiple words (not just one word, not incoherent noise), and therefore the subject is plural. If you mean to say you did not even recognize that there were breaks between words in her speech, you could say, "Her jabbering means nothing to me." Then the subject is singular. – David K May 3 '17 at 14:04
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    This answer strikes me as self contradictory. You say that you "can't use a singular verb after it", and then you provide a counter example. – Tupelo Thistlehead May 3 '17 at 14:06
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    In conversation people sometimes change their minds about how they want to say something after they have already started speaking, so yes, you can have inconsistent grammar in a spoken utterance. There is also a convention that [number of units] is a singular noun, for example, "Five tons is a lot of rice." And of course there are speech patterns that use the singular or plural forms of verbs in non-standard ways: "We hates Bilbo Baggins!" Is any of that relevant to the OP's question? – David K May 3 '17 at 14:24
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    OK, at some point in one's education one should become aware that there are many varieties of English-language writing. Sometimes (Dead Man's Gold) a writer adopts a colloquial tone or other non-standard form, even in the narration of a novel (especially if it's first-person narration); at other times (Sweet Gun's) the writer appears to have a very tenuous grasp on written English altogether. In any case, you said the singular form of the verb could occur in informal usage, and that's correct. I guess I really have no reason to complain. – David K May 3 '17 at 15:22
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"Are" is better suited in this case even though you're considering her words as a single entity. You can always consider replacing "words" with something else, for instance:

Her comment is an encouragement to me.

Or some other similar variant.

4

'Are' refers to plural subjects in the present tense. 'Is' refers to singular subjects in the present tense.

So your final example is incorrect English, it would sound very awkward if it were spoken.

You could write this sentence in a form which uses 'is' by referring to the way these words reached you, for instance:

Her writing is a real inspiration to me.

Her speech is an inspiration to me.

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    Yet, there are many cases where a plural forms an "ad-hoc" group, which is considered as a (singular) whole, as in "A dismal three days ago." It's getting harder and harder for me to justify even the most basic rules of English grammar with anything other than, "I'm a native speaker, and this is how we've always done it." – jpaugh May 3 '17 at 20:35
  • I'm not quite sure I understand your example. There the subject is "dismissal", and it's singular. So to use the is/are form, in a different tense, it would be "My dismissal is later today". – AJFaraday May 3 '17 at 21:11
  • "dismal" is not a noun, but an adjective. – jpaugh May 3 '17 at 21:13
  • @jpaugh I'm afraid that's just not true. en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/dismissal the adjective form would be "dismissive". – AJFaraday May 3 '17 at 21:20
  • @AJFaraday "dismal" (adjective) and "dismissal" (noun) are different words, with completely different meanings. "Dismal" is not a typo here! – alephzero May 3 '17 at 21:59

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