The ’90s Was or Were: Are Decades and Centuries Singular or Plural?


Names of decades and centuries (the 1800s, the 1970s, the eighties, the ’90s) are generally considered plural but can also be singular. Use plural verbs to show a period of years (e.g., 1970 to ’79); use singular verbs to refer to one period of time (e.g., the decade of the ’70s).

  • Plural: The 1990s were golden years for alternative rock.
    Singular: The 1990s was as much the decade of the sitcom as the dot-com.
  • Plural: The 1800s were a time of imperialism and colonialism.
    Singular: The 1800s was the era of industrialization.

Centuries and decades

A century is a 100-year period, while a decade is a period of 10 years. A specific century begins with a year ending in 01, and a specific decade with a year ending in 0. Thus, the twentieth century (or the 1900s) lasted from 1901 to 2000, and the decade of the 1990s (or the nineties) from 1990 to 1999.

  • We lived in Spain in the 1990s.
  • The Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s.
  • She grew up listening to hair metal bands of the eighties.
  • The nineteenth century was a time of technical progress.
  • The 1990s changed how we watch TV.
  • Remember how DVDs became popular in the 2000s?

Decades and centuries may be written in either numerals or words: the 1800s or the 19th/nineteenth century; the 1990s, the ’90s, or the nineties. An apostrophe before the s in “1800s” and “1990s” is generally omitted in formal writing.

Singular or plural?

As plural words, names of decades and centuries (like the 1800s, 1990s) are generally used with plural verbs like are and were. However, they can also be considered singular—the name of one period of time—and used with singular verbs like is and was.

  • Plural: The 1800s were marked by important scientific discoveries.
    Singular: The 1800s was a period of great social upheaval.
  • Plural: The 1990s are best known for the rise of the Internet.
    Singular: The 1990s was a time of relative prosperity.

While terms like “the 1800s” may be singular or plural, phrases like “the nineteenth century” and “the 20th century” are always singular.

Plural usage

Names of centuries and decades (like the 1800s and the 1990s) are most often considered plural. When you want to show a decade or a century comprising a set of years rather than being a singular entity, use a plural verb.

  • The 1800s are known for inventions that changed the course of human history.
  • The 1970s were the best years of her life.
  • The 1990s are remembered as much for their chat rooms as for the Macarena.
  • The 2020s have not been kind to humanity.

Collective nouns may be considered either singular or plural, depending on meaning and preference.

Here are some published examples of decades and centuries used with plural verbs like were and are.

  • The nineties were also the decade of everything . . .
    — “EFL: The 1990s,” BBC Sport, September 8, 2018
  • The 2000s are not the late 1960s, culturally or ideologically . . .
    — “Pop Music and the War: The Sound of Resignation,” New York Times, January 2, 2007
  • The most obvious is that the 1990s were fuelled by stock, whereas today’s frenzy runs on credit.
    — “The Global Merger Boom: The Beat Goes On,” Economist, May 10, 2007
  • When the silence is paired with dramatic shots of the remote setting, Sciamma makes you feel how isolating the 1800s were.
    — “Céline Sciamma Subverts the Classical Period Piece in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’” Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2020

Singular usage

Names of decades and centuries (like the 1990s and 1800s) are considered singular when thought of as a single time period rather than a set of years.

  • The 1990s was a decade that began on January 1, 1990.
    With a singular complement (a decade), the singular was can sound more natural than the plural were.

When the subject in a sentence is followed by a singular complement, it can sound more natural to use a singular verb like was or is.

  • The 1800s was the century of imperialism and colonialism.
  • If ever there was a decade of hope and dissatisfaction in equal measure, the sixties was it.

Note that it is fine to use a plural verb with a singular complement (“Jalapeños are my favorite ingredient”). Both was and were are fine in the following sentence, depending on what you want to emphasize: the decade as a singular unit or as a period of multiple years. Whether you use was or were can also depend on what sounds more natural to your ear.

  • The 1980s was/were the decade of big, wavy blow-dried hair.

Here are a couple of examples from the Guardian, where the writer treats “the 1980s” as both singular and plural within the same piece of writing:

  • So the 1980s were one long orgy of champagne and shoulder pads?
  • For much of Britain, including London, the 1980s was a brutal decade of poverty and unemployment . . .

Here are some more examples of names of decades and centuries treated as singular nouns taking singular verbs:

  • But where the 1980s was a decade that created a new consciousness of technology by offering a tsunami of choices, the 1990s will be fundamentally different.
    — “Can Technology Grant All Wishes?” Washington Post, January 14, 1990
  • The 1990s was a decade of interventions . . .
    — “Humanitarian Intervention” by Duncan Bell, Britannica
  • If there was ever a time not to push deregulation further, the nineties was it.
    — “The Roaring Nineties,” Atlantic, October 2002
  • The survey of 2,000 British adults found that the 1990s was the most popular decade for films.
    — “The Top 40 Films of the 1990s,” Independent, March 20,2019

Examples from literature

Here are some sentences from literature showing how names of decades may be singular or plural, depending on meaning and the writer’s preference.

  • Those were heady days, all right, when the sixties were a vivid yesterday, not a vanished epoch.
    J.G. Ballard, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris Review, Issue 94, 1984
  • If the seventies were bulbous, and the eighties sharp, the nineties were nothing but bogus.
    Will Self, How the Dead Live, 2000
  • This wasn’t easy, for although the 1950s was a busy age for heroes, it was a strange one.
    Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, 2006
  • The 1970s was the decade of liberation, of anger at injustice and demands for recognition and rights.
  • All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and other small towns like it the seventies were not as we picture them now, or as I had known them even in Vancouver.
    Alice Munro, “Haven,” The New Yorker, 2012

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Did You Know?

Religious titles like reverend and minister are lowercased when used as common nouns.
Know more:Are Pope, Bishop, Reverend, and Rabbi Capitalized?