It's been a good games for Trinidad and Tobago, right? We won one gold medal and three bronze, and we qualified for the finals of some 11 events. Our athletes beat others of much-bigger, better-resourced nations. Unbelievably, 19-year old Keshorn Walcott of Toco gave us our second Olympic gold in 36 years — in men's javelin of all sports.
Our national anthem was played for the second time in the history of the Olympics. And the government rose mightily to the occasion in its gifts to the young hero.
It was a successful Games for Great Britain too, a successful London Games. So said the chief organiser, Lord Sebastian Coe. And others exult that it was a great Olympics.
A successful Games? A great Olympics? Can we say that? Can we use the indefinite article ("a'') with a noun in plural form ("Games'', "Olympics'')? Doesn't that break the rules?
Well, it appears from actual usage — check the BBC website, for example — that we can say so and that it doesn't break the rules of use. I will try to explain below. It might be a good idea to start with more common usage and then argue the case by analogy.
We are familiar with statements like the following, aren't we?
1. It was a wonderful two-weeks.
2. She bought a new scissors.
3. That's a nice jeans you are
4. This is a new police barracks.
5. This is a busy crossroads.
6. The smartphone is a great
means of communication.
In all of them, there is a noun phrase in which the indefinite article is used with a noun in plural form. And they are all used by even the most educated of us in educated conversation.
What do they have in common? In (1), the article is used with a noun phrase referring to one period of time, measured as two weeks. In (2), it is used with a noun referring to one tool, composed of two matching blades. In (3), it is used with a noun referring to one article of clothing, composed of two matching legs. In (4), it is used with a noun referring to buildings, seen as one group of buildings. In (5), it is used with a noun referring to four roads meeting in one cross. And in (6), it is used with a noun referring to one way of communicating but we do not quite know whether "means'' is a collection of things that comprise its meaning.
We probably can call most of them "summation plurals'', following the renowned British grammarian Randolph Quirk and his colleagues in their magnum opus A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. The one that poses the most difficulty for the label is "means'' since, as stated above, we do not know what it might be summarising; we will simply say, as Quirk et al do, that it is a plural form that can be treated as singular or plural.
Some students of the language will also take issue with statements (2) and (3), on the grounds that the received grammar is the partitive phrase "a pair of'' must come before the nouns. But the fact of the matter is that in Standard English conversations all over the English-speaking world, including Great Britain, the partitive is dispensed with in relation to articles of clothing like shoes, pants, shorts and panties. (For some reason, ladies, a thong is not regarded as an article of clothing with two matching parts! So "a pair of'' does not apply, except you are buying two!)
The critical thing about the words is that they allow a reference that can be seen as a unit and, as such, the grammar uses the singular indefinite article, our "a'', to keep the unitary character of the reference.
So let's come back to the description "a good Games''. We can, by analogy, see that the games can be conceived of as a set or collection. The best analogy in our list of six examples is "barracks'' in (4). In that case, we can say "a Games'' just as we can say "a barracks''. But "Games'' has to have a conventionalised or institutionalised reference or meaning as a collection of games in our experience, which the Olympic games do.
What about "a successful Olympics''? This one is more difficult, for no one speaks of an Olympic. A given Olympics is not a collection of Olympics; it is, like "games'', a collection of games. What then?
I think we must be content with saying that there are some nouns, including those ending in "cs'', that are, to quote Quirk et al, "usually invariable and treated as singular'', e.g., "mathematics'', "linguistics'', "athletics'', "acoustics'', "physics'', "ethics'', "economics'', "statistics'', and "gymnastics''. "Olympics'' is one of them. A few of them, e.g., "ethics'' and "statistics'', lose their "s'' for special uses.
It must be noted that, as an alternative and in the right contexts, one can pluralise the meaning of "games'' with the Olympic reference, as in "these were successful games''. But I don't remember reading, hearing, or using something like , "These were successful Olympics.''
Let's close with Lord Coe in an interview: "This has been a Games for the athletes.''
"A Games'', right?
• Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst.