Herpes: A Grammatical Question.
February 15, 2013 6:48 PM   Subscribe

When talking to a coworker I offered the phrase, "hey kid, go ask your Mom what herpes are.". My coworker responded with "herpes is.". We then started a discussion of the proper use of is/are and could not come to a conclusion. Any insight?

The conversation drifted into other words as simple as cats and gum, then switched over to The Simpsons. We also touched into the territory of phrasing and tense. If you have credentials please offer them as it would be better than assuming each person is an English major.

As an aside, this wasn't a conversation directed at my coworker. We were making jokes about a child that put her mouth on the spout of a beverage machine.
posted by JakeEXTREME to Education (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Herpes is a disease. The sores caused by herpes are not called "herpes". Herpes should thus be used with "is", and questions of mass nouns and count nouns, etc. are unimportant.
posted by brainmouse at 6:51 PM on February 15, 2013 [14 favorites]

Herpes is singular. Your coworker is right. I have no credentials, other than looking up the etymology of the word: It's from Latin, where the -s suffix doesn't indicate plurality.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:52 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I work in the field of STDs: Herpes is singular.
posted by tristeza at 6:55 PM on February 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's singular. Look it up in any dictionary — it should have no plural, and the definition will say it's a disease (not components of a disease). Herpes refers to a condition someone has, just like acne is a condition someone has. In either case, it's one condition had by a single person. Someone who has multiple pimples doesn't have "acnes"; all the pimples on any one person are collectively referred to as "acne."

If you have credentials please offer them

I have a BA in philosophy and a law degree.
posted by John Cohen at 7:05 PM on February 15, 2013

Yeah, it's singular. I'm an editor.
posted by rtha at 7:13 PM on February 15, 2013

You are wrong. Herpes is singular. I'm really not clear as to how english majors enter into your wrongness, apart from the fact that your argument demonstrates that you don't understand the basic rules of english grammar, but you are wrong.
posted by goo at 7:14 PM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just to obviate the question, the response should have been:
hey kid, go ask your Mom about herpes.

But in this instance, as a singular herpes virus is sufficient to cause whatever soda sucking batenage you're involved in, it would be singular.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:15 PM on February 15, 2013

Singular. It's like diabetes; you can't have just one diabete.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:21 PM on February 15, 2013 [17 favorites]

There's no such thing as a herpe, even when you have the infection called herpes. (That is to say, the sores that are present during a herpes outbreak are not themselves called "herpes," which perhaps is where you confusion comes from?)

I am an editor and a reader of dictionaries.
posted by scody at 7:46 PM on February 15, 2013

Are you thinking that since you were speaking very casually, you were eliding some words and that's why herpes is plural? Like, "go ask your Mom what herpes [sores] are" or "what [the types of] herpes are"?

I think your friend has correct grammar and bad manners, so I give you this as a possible way out.
posted by Houstonian at 7:56 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

The "es" in "Herpes" is not a pluralization, it's a Greek word. Think: "How many Sophocles?"
posted by rhizome at 8:37 PM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Corpus of Contemporary American English has about 20 instances of the phrase "herpes *" where * is a singular verb (e.g. "is", "has", "takes"). It has no instances where * is a plural verb (e.g. "are", "have", "take"). Well, technically, it has a few, but examination has proved them all to be false positives (e.g. "syphilis and herpes are", "requested a herpes test").

By the way, etymology is not always your friend here. There are plenty of words that started out as singular (or mass) nouns but have long since been reinterpreted as plurals. For example, there was a time when the word "pea" did not exist, but the word "pease" did exist as a mass noun (think "pease porridge hot..."), much in the same way as we use the word "rice" today. But people began thinking of it as a plural, and they invented a singular version "pea" to go with it (this is a kind of back formation). And now "pea" and "peas" are standard English. The same thing has happened with "aborigines" and "assets", giving us "aborigine" and "asset".
posted by ErWenn at 8:52 PM on February 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you have credentials please offer them as it would be better than assuming each person is an English major.

Agreed with everyone that "herpes is" is definitely correct, and that your coworker wasn't displaying the best manners even if they did have grammar on their side.

That said, you do not learn grammar as an English major so that doesn't have anything to do with it. (English major pet peeve).
posted by sweetkid at 8:58 PM on February 15, 2013 [7 favorites]

Herpes the disease is singular.

The Herpesviridae are within a large family of viruses also known more colloquially as the herpesviruses. One member is a herpes virus.

Herpes virions (the inert viral particles that infect cells) are often plural because, like glitter, you can't really have just one - except perhaps in abstract when discussing aspects of that virion.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:41 AM on February 16, 2013

The above is all fine and good, but I've gotten a fair amount of mileage out of low-brow jokes referring to individual sores as "a herpie." When the opportunity presents itself...
posted by Golfhaus at 4:54 AM on February 16, 2013

Herpes is singular, I say as an English major who has herpes.
posted by lydhre at 5:21 AM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

In fact English has a whole lot of plural-looking singulars. They tend to be either diseases (herpes, diabetes, rickets, yaws, [the] mumps, shingles, pox — originally a plural form of "pock" — etc.), games (billiards, darts, dominoes, checkers, ninepins, craps), or fields of study (mathematics, physics, acoustics, statistics, mechanics), with a few outliers in other categories (news, the United States, the New York Times).
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 6:24 AM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Herpes is short for "herpes simplex virus"; it's singular.
posted by windykites at 6:30 AM on February 16, 2013

Herpes virologist here. It is singlular.
posted by The Bishop of Turkey at 7:50 AM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

As everyone else is saying, it's singular. The main (really, only) reason is that that's how it's used in English, but if you want to go into etymology, it's ultimately from Greek ἕρπης [herpēs] (stem ἑρπητ- [herpēt-]), from the verb ἕρπειν [herpein] 'to creep'; the plural of the Greek word would be ἕρπητες [herpētes]. It's the same formation as χάρις [kharis] 'grace,' plural χάριτες [kharites], except that the stem ends in -ēt- rather than -it-. The -t- of the stem is absorbed into the nominative singular -s ending; this goes back to Proto-Indo-European. Hope this helps.

> If you have credentials please offer them

I am an editor by profession and I have a master's degree in Indo-European historical linguistics.
posted by languagehat at 9:26 AM on February 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

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