Writing ‘rights’ right!

Indonesia has rights to withdraw from ASEAN if trade agreements are not adhered to.

When rights are the simple object of a sentence I rarely see any error in student writing.

  • Women have rights.
  • Workers’ union members have rights.
  • etc.

My own students write sentences like this without error. However, when adding information about these rights in a more complex sentence, they soon run into problems.

I think it’s best to look at this as a lexical issue, rather than a grammatical one.

The word rights (with ‘s’) is often used as part of a lexical phrase, like ‘human rights’, or ‘animal rights’, or ‘rights for women’. Each of these phrases refers to a set of rights (more than one) that belong to a particular group.

On the other hand if you’re only talking about a single right, as in the opening example – withdrawing from ASEAN – then the following structures are common.

  1. (to have) + the + right + to + V1
    • Sony had the right to distribute the recordings in 1985.
    • The president has the right to overturn the new law.
    • The right to vote is under attack across the country.
  2. (to have) + the + right + to + n
    • Every citizen has the right to free medical care.
    • The right to privacy is often ignored by the authorities.
  3. to have + a + right + to + V1
    • I have a right to park here. I live here!

Notice that the right in example 1 is one that is seldom exercised (= used), while the right (‘a right’) in example 3 is probably exercised regularly. The structure in example 3, which is not as common in academic writing, very often begins with either a proper noun or personal pronoun (in this case ‘I’).

So to return to our opening example, we need one of these:

  • Indonesia has the right to withdraw from ASEAN if trade agreements are not adhered to.
  • The right to withdraw from ASEAN if trade agreements are broken, is held by all ASEAN members.

Withdrawing from ASEAN is not a right that is exercised regularly, and so the right is more appropriate than a right.

Notice also in an earlier comment I used strong verb-noun collocation: exercise + right. For other words that collocate with right, see here, and for more examples of the structures demonstrated in this post, see here.