A reader named Maggie asked whether one pair of jeans is singular or plural. In other words, should she say that one pair of jeans IS on the chair or one pair of jeans ARE on the chair?
What’s the Trouble? People find "pair" confusing. Is it singular or plural?
A pair is two of something, but a pair can be singular or plural—it’s one of those odd English nouns (like "couple") that can be singular or plural depending on how you’re thinking of the people or items in question.
For example, if you have two similar dogs entered in a dog show by the same owner, you might say something like “The pair of schnauzers were entered by Hanz Finkelstein,” treating "pair" as plural (the pair were entered) because they are two distinct dogs.
On the other hand, Maggie’s pair of jeans seems more like one thing, so you would be more likely to say her pair of jeans is on the chair.
Here are more examples:
A pair of papers ... have been submitted to Astronomy and Astrophysics, describing the planets.
―Dennis Overbye writing for the New York Times
In the crowd, furious but friendly arguments were taking place as surrounding groups watched, much the way one-on-one basketball games are enjoyed in urban America. One pair was arguing the merits of salvaging at least a bit of the Russian language as Ukrainians try to move forward into independence.
― Francis Clines writing for the New York Times
There’s no definitive right or wrong choice. You simple choose the verb that best reflects the singleness or plurality of your subject—does the pair seem more like one thing (a unit) or two separate things?
What Should You Do? If a pair seems like one thing, it’s singular. If a pair seems like two separate things, it’s plural.