"The Heights [a Little Rock neighborhood] were white."
A reader asks "Why not 'The Heights was white'? It is singular, or is it?"
I'm sure there are people who could answer that question yes or no with confidence, and perhaps even a smaller group whose confidence would be justified. I'm not among those people. Questions such as this make me feel like the umpire who, faced with a difficult ball-or-strike decision, declared the pitch too close to call.
Success With Words, a usage manual I rely heavily on, says "The conventions of English usage relating to grammatical number — the use of singular and plural forms — are more complex and flexible than might be expected. Rather than attempt to analyze the underlying rules in all their permutations, we shall cite some typical examples of correct, debatable, and wrong or awkward choices ..."
True to its word, SSW proceeds to give us a couple of pages worth of close calls, such as "An average of 400 people has participated in the weekend searches ... " Here, the manual says "Probably the writer considered 'have' but edited it to 'has'; this is strictly correct but 'have' is more natural and equally correct."
"More natural" is what I mean when I refer to my "sounds right" rule, which I fall back on often. "Sgt. John Law with the Washington County sheriff's office said he and other deputies were searching county roads Thursday for anyone who may have been stranded in a vehicle, much like the state police was doing along highways." That "was" may be strictly correct, but when I read "state police," I see a bunch of troopers. I can no more say "The state police was doing" than "The Razorbacks is leading."
And so, to return to the original question, to me "The Heights were white." And still is.
n Harold Freeman writes: "A slightly drunk person is said to be 'tight'. Why? Wouldn't a more appropriate word be 'loose'?"
Easier questions, please.