Do you use singular or plural after “types of”

Would you say “two types of widget” or “two types of widgets”? In other words, should we use singular or plural after the phrase “types of”?

This is a real use case. In a code review this week, someone corrected my use of “types of widget”. People have varied and vociferous opinions. It’s intensely interesting, especially to technical writers.

Since I was a babe in arms, I’ve always used the singular:
“There are so many kinds of chocolate cookie! Which one shall I try next?”
“What are your favourite types of dog?”

To me this sequence just looks odd:
Pick one type of car.
Pick two types of cars.

Surely, if we can grant the English language a modicum of mathematical elegance 😉 this should be correct:
Pick one type of car.
Pick two types of car.

So, why does the singular sound better to me? I think it’s because, when used after “types of”, the noun is acting as a concept representing a class of things, rather than a specific instance of the thing.

What do you think? Bring on the debate!

A kookaburra near my house:

A kookaburra looking goofy

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 28 September 2013, in language, technical writing. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Good question! I needed a good work-related distraction.

    It’s hard to find a definitive rule on the agreement of a noun and the object of a preposition which modifies it. I think it depends on the definition of the preposition’s object. If the object is something specific like “beer”, “dog”, or “year”, you would use the singular form of the object.

    She likes many types of beer.
    With a small apartment, you should avoid certain kinds of dog.
    Fall is one of his favorite times of year.

    When the object is less specific and can have many different definitions, like “shoe “, “car”, or “widget”, you would use the plural form of the object.

    Her closet contains various types of shoes.
    Test driving several kinds of cars has helped him decide what features are important.
    The company manufacturers of all kinds of widgets for the do-it-yourselfer.

    To your specific case, there is an example in the definition of the word “widget”, which supports the correction of your usage.

  2. I like the plural for both, such as “types of widgets.” Could this be an American English vs. Aussie English? What an interesting conversation.

  3. Kelly M. McDaniel

    Say, “There are several types of a widget.” “There are several types of widget.” means that types and widgets are both plural. Widget is an umbrella term. Say, “There are several types of fishes.” Might be correct, don’t know, but “types of fish” sounds better…maybe. Something I have tried to explain to countless non-writers who question why I construct sentences the way I do is that spoken language and written language are distinctly different forms of communication.

  4. I wrote a similar blog post on which word is the plural just the other day!:

    Could you reword to avoid the issue? i.e. widget types? Actually, rewording confirms to me that I would write ‘types of widget’ because I would say ‘widget types’ not ‘widgets types’.

  5. Here’s an interesting comment from Jodie Miners on Google+:

    I think, in tech writing you can’t get caught up in language rules if it doesn’t make sense in a tech sense. In the end, you are writing for the users. In the context of this sentence you are talking about widgets. The word widget, singular is not used often in a tech sense except for “click on the widget”. So, for widgets, I would go plural and I would evaluate the rules again for different cases.

  6. Two more replies, one via Twitter and one via LinkedIn, both support the plural: “types of widgets”.

    In my family, both people I asked prefer the singular: “types of widget”.

    The thot plickens. 😉

  7. I think it is quite interesting to try this with irregular plurals. Would you say “There are many kinds of person in the world” or “many kinds of people”? What about “kinds of children” vs “kinds of child”?

    • I think Sarah’s reasoning is the best argument for the plural, although WORDS INTO TYPE says to use the singular (p. 358) “unless the plural idea is overriding.” (The example of the latter is “What kind of concerns are they?”)

    • Sarah’s point about irregular plurals is very interesting. I think I’d still go for the singular: “The WHO addresses the health of many types of child”. But to be honest, I don’t know if my thinking has been coloured by thinking about this topic so much. 🙂

      I’m loving the discussion on this thread!

  8. I would use the plural. That’s what I grew up with. That’s what sounds “normal” to me.

  9. Graham Hannington

    Hi Sarah (Maddox),

    I’m with you on this one. I prefer “types of widget” (widget, singular).

    Just last week, I sent feedback to the owners of a documentation website pointing out two issues: (1) an unequivocal factual error and (2) their use of “types of widgets” (it was some other word, but “widgets” will do just as well).

    The owners accepted my correction for the first issue, but agreed to disagree about “types of widgets”.

    The main point of my feedback was the factual error. I included the comment about “types of widgets” as a nitpick, without – to my discredit – thinking too hard about it.

    It was only after the owners replied to me that I questioned my own judgment on this issue, and did some research.

    I looked through the references on my bookshelf at work: the corporate style guidelines for the website in question, The Chicago Manual of Style, Fowler’s, The Elements of Style (Strunk & White), Usage & Abusage, and others at home. I also looked at two dictionaries: Merriam-Webster (the dictionary nominated by the corporate style guidelines) and the Oxford English Dictionary. None offered advice on this specific issue, although Merriam-Webster did offer these examples:

    We studied various types of trees.

    He only likes two types of music.

    She likes all types of books.

    Then I did some research on the web and found various discussions, including this one, “Types of things vs. types of thing” on the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange:

  10. Thank you, Sarah, for the post; you have a point. However, I feel there is more to the story, because when you mention “types of” you are necessarily listing about the choices, alternatives, or kinds of common categories. For example, in “three types of shirts”, I am talking about a common category “shirt”, but there could well be a number of such common categories, which can be defined as shirts. I think such types of issues (Now, this is one more example: “types of issues”) should be handled based on personal choice and discretion. Personally, I feel you have a logic, but I will still use the pluralized form after “types of”.

  11. I think if the noun is clearly quantifiable (children, widgets, cars), you should use the plural after “types of”; if it is less so or has to do more with an abstract idea of a thing (beer, grain, soap, rice) the noun after “types of” should be singular. I think that is why sometimes it sounds wrong when we slavishly follow the rule of making the noun plural after every instance of “types of.”

  12. Conclusion/TL;DR:

    You can study KINDS of tree without actually studying trees themselves.
    It is only when you are studying kinds of trees that you are actually studying trees!

    Here is what I think

    A. We studied various kinds of tree.

    B. We studied various kinds of trees.

    Both are correct, with each one having a slightly different meaning to the other.

    In A, kinds were studied.

    In B, trees were studied.

    In A, kinds were studied, with the information of their being tree kinds being additional.

    In B, trees were studied, with the information of their being various in kind being additional.

    See, in such sentences as B, “various kinds” loses its value as a noun phrase and forms a unit with “of” of the kind only used to describe a plurality of things. Thus, “various kinds of” functions unitarily as a determiner, equal in value to “many”, “few” or even just “various” by itself. Hence, the following are all in the same category:

    many trees
    few trees
    various trees
    various kinds of trees

    Thus, sentence B is in the same category as sentences such as

    C. We saw all kinds of people there.

    which is correct as opposed to

    D. We saw all kinds of person there.

    In some cases, such as that of B, it may seem redundant to have “trees” in the plural when we already know that there are more than one kind thereof. However, when we consider that “various kinds of” functions as a unit such as “many” in the mind of a mother tongue English speaker when combined with a plural, it makes sense.

    Perhaps this makes things clearer:

    You can study KINDS of tree without actually studying trees themselves.
    It is only when you are studying kinds of trees that you are actually studying trees!

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