Which of the following is correct?

a) Johnson et al. (2010) prove that all snow is yellow.

b) Johnson et al. (2010) proves that all snow is yellow.

I suppose the question boils down to whether I'm citing the authors or their paper. If the paper is the subject of the sentence, it's singular (b). If the authors are the subject, then it's plural (a).

  • 3
    A previous question on this: english.stackexchange.com/questions/99886/…
    – Ric
    Nov 23 '15 at 15:38
  • 1
    @Ric Thanks. That is helpful. In that post, though, there is no year included so it seems more obvious that the subject is the authors, not the paper. With a year included, it seems more natural to me that the article is the subject. Indeed, it is a particular article by the authors that proves that all snow is yellow. There may be another article by those same authors that proves that all snow is green. Having said that, the accepted answer does include a year and still favors the plural. So maybe this is a duplicate. Think I should delete?
    – Shane
    Nov 23 '15 at 15:46
  • Good point. But what happens if both those articles are published in the same year? =)
    – Ric
    Nov 23 '15 at 15:48
  • 1
    Johnson et al. (2010a) proves that all snow is yellow. Johnson et al. (2010b) proves that all snow is green. At least that's how I've seen it done in economics (which, as is well known, reduces to the study of snow color). You can see I favor using the article as the subject and therefore the singular.
    – Shane
    Nov 23 '15 at 15:51
  • Version (a), where the authors are the subject, should probably be in past tense. They proved it, in the past :-)
    – Flyto
    Nov 25 '15 at 8:26

I personally am comfortable with both ways, for exactly the reasons that you give: it's entirely reasonable to refer to either the authors or the paper. The important thing is to be consistent with your usage throughout a manuscript, else your readers may wonder why you feel it appropriate to refer to some authors directly but not others.


I'd offer another alternative:

c) Johnson, et al. (2010) a proof of yellow snow.

The paper penned and published by Johnson and his buddies back in 2010, entitled "An analysis of the purity of driven snow" does not PROVE that all fallen snow is tainted, thus is "yellow." His paper OFFERS A PROOF that all fallen snow is tainted.

I believe, though I reserve the right to be ridiculed and otherwise piled on by both Chicago and MLA acolytes, that when you first cite a reference, it is of the general form:

1) Johnson, et al. "An Analysis Of The Purity Of Driven Snow" (2010) p.544. (optional summary descriptive text)

...and subsequent cites can be shorthand:

2) Johnson, et al. (2010)

  • 2
    Your answer would not fit in a paragraph using an author-date format. You seem to be giving a reference list rather than an in-text reference.
    – Emilie
    Nov 23 '15 at 20:03
  • I'll second @Emilie's point - the question is specifically about the the agreement of the paper reference with a verb in a sentence. The paper is singular, the author list may or may not be...
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 23 '15 at 20:19
  • @Emilie, Custer et al. You seem to have missed my point. The point is that the reference should be a NOUN-ish word, not a VERB-ish word. i.e. "proof" versus "proves"
    – dwoz
    Nov 23 '15 at 21:41
  • 1
    Maybe I've missed your point, but I never seen a sentence such as the one you propose in c so I don't understand how this can be applied.
    – Emilie
    Nov 24 '15 at 14:01

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