This context comes from the book "Black Rednecks And White Liberals" by Thomas Sowell.

"He urged charitable efforts toward blacks after they were freed, lest “desperate want” make them dangerous to those around them. But he too saw the freeing of millions of people unprepared for freedom as creating a serious danger to the society as a whole."

I know that "want" is an uncountable noun that means:

a lack of something:

For want of anything better to do I watched television for a while.(Cambridge dictionary)

I know that there is a rule that applies to collective nouns that they take a plural verb when each of the individuals in the group is considered as a separate entity e.g:

  1. The team is painting a mural. (The team collectively paints the mural, so the verb is singular.)

  2. The team are in disagreement about how to paint the mural. (The people on the team disagree with one another, so the verb is plural.)

Does this rule also apply also to uncountable nouns as the one in the book? If not, why the verb takes the plural form in this case?


1 Answer 1


It's nothing to do with the number.

Lest is one of those words which takes the base form of the verb rather than the normal inflected form.

This tends to be a rather formal or old-fashioned use; but "lest" is rarely used in ordinary speech anyway.

Though can also take the base form, but this is even more old-fashioned.

Some verbs also take this form, notably demand.

(Traditionally this form is called the "subjunctive", but since it is identical with the base form of the verb for every verb in the language - even "be" - I think it is a needless complication to give it a special name)

  • lest is a verb? I thought it was a conjunction, meaning for fear that.
    – Lambie
    Mar 1, 2023 at 18:13
  • Lest is indeed a conjunction. I didn't say it was a verb: I said that (like the verb demand) it takes the base form of the verb. I'll reword.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 1, 2023 at 19:07

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .