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Collective Nouns and Consistency

In American English, most collective nouns take singular verbs—except when a sentence emphasizes the individuals in the group, not the group as a whole.

In a sentence like The faculty is organized into eight departments, the collective noun faculty is singular. But consider The university’s faculty are renowned scholars in their own right. In that sentence, faculty is plural because it refers to the members rather than to the unit. Some sentences could go either way. In a sentence like The faculty disagrees/disagree on the need for a new facility, it’s a judgment call whether to make faculty singular or plural.

Would it be bad form for faculty to be “it” in one sentence and “they” in another? Many authorities say yes. Claire Kehrwald Cook, a renowned copyeditor turned author, says, “Keep it consistently singular or plural … The shifting from singular to plural may be distracting if the sentences occur close together.” English scholar Bryan A. Garner takes it a step further: “If in the beginning of an essay, the phrasing is the faculty was, then every reference to faculty as a noun should be singular throughout the whole.”

That may be solid advice, but it feels a bit extreme. If faculty is singular in the first paragraph of a five thousand-word story and plural in the final paragraph, one in a hundred readers might notice the discrepancy, and one in a thousand might care. Nonetheless, Garner’s perfectionism is a goal worth shooting for.

If consistency with a collective noun is commendable in essays, it is essential in sentences. Yet we read things like the following all the time: I hope the company gets what they’ve asked for. The writer sees no problem in making company singular (gets), then plural two words later. It’s a mystery why nobody spotted the problem and made the obvious fix: I hope the company gets what it has asked for.

Here’s another: Technology allows us to rethink how the public interacts with their government. We can all agree that “with its government” is clunky. Instead let’s remove the s from interacts. There is nothing grammatically wrong with how the public interact with their government.

Still, there are those who would rather not pair a collective noun with a plural verb. All right then, why not change the public to the people? Or remove the unnecessary their, which gives us Technology allows us to rethink how the public interacts with the government, a decided improvement on the original.

Although collective nouns can be singular or plural, depending on context, keeping them singular is the preference of many writers. All others should avoid the trap of having it both ways—ideally in the same story, but unquestionably in the same sentence.


Pop Quiz

Are these sentences all right? If not, can you fix them? (Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.)

1. The jury reached its verdict after they deliberated for three days.
2. The pair was last spotted leaving their home in separate cars.
3. After they won, the team was shouting and congratulating themselves.


Pop Quiz Answers

There are many good alternatives. Here are our suggestions.

1. The jury reached its verdict after deliberating for three days.
2. The pair were last spotted leaving their home in separate cars.
3. The players were shouting and congratulating themselves after the team won.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 8, 2014, at 4:43 pm

These Nouns Present Singular Problems

Let’s talk about nouns with split personalities.

A collective noun (e.g., group, team, jury, flock, herd) is a paradox: singular in form (the team, a jury, one flock) but plural in meaning—who ever heard of a one-person group or a one-goat herd?

Whenever we use a collective noun as a subject, we must decide whether it takes a singular or a plural verb. American writers and editors prefer the singular form unless logic demands the plural. The key is context: is the sentence about the group as a unit or is it more about the individuals in that group? It is advisable to write The class is studying Shakespeare. But it is also advisable to write The class are studying at their desks.

Nonetheless, most sticklers cringe when they hear or read “The class are studying …,” no matter what follows. If someone is determined never to use a plural verb with a collective noun, there are ways to avoid the problem. In the above example, a simple fix is to substitute students for class.

Let’s try a few more. The jury are fighting among themselves. Make it jurors instead. The regiment were invited to bring their friends and families. Switching to soldiers would be an improvement. Finding themselves at a stalemate, the committee decided to put down their pens and repair to their homes. You could say committee members, or you could rewrite the whole stodgy sentence: Unable to end the stalemate, the committee decided to adjourn.

Sometimes choosing the “right” form is a matter of taste. Some writers would be fine with The audience jumped to its feet. Others would insist on jumped to their feet, feeling that its turns the audience into a cartoonish beast with a plethora of lower extremities.

There is a subgroup of collective nouns that take a plural verb more often than not. Examples include bunch, handful, variety, and—though some may not agree—couple. Most readers would wince at the awkward singular verbs in these sentences: A bunch of motorcycles is speeding through town; A handful of his friends was urging him not to run; A variety of delicious fruits is used in the dessert.

As for couple, many writers want it plural unless the sentence sounds absurd otherwise—and such sentences are rare. After all, what does couple mean if not “the two of them”? Keep couple plural, and you will avoid abominations like Their friends say the couple looks alike or The couple was taking naps in adjoining rooms.

When collective nouns become roadblocks to effective sentences, resourceful writers can always find ways around them.


Pop quiz

1. The crowd is/are filling up the arena.
2. The enemy consists of/consist of that country’s fiercest warriors.
3. The public is/are invited to sit anywhere on the lawn.


Pop quiz answers

1. The crowd is filling up the arena.
2. The enemy consists of that country’s fiercest warriors.
3. A good case could be made for either option.

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Posted on Tuesday, July 1, 2014, at 9:02 pm

Based Off Is Off Base

Enough is enough. It’s time to blow the whistle on an obnoxious faux idiom that has the popular culture under its spell. The offending usage is based off and its alternate form, based off of.

Both are everywhere. One hears and sees them constantly over the airwaves, in print, and online. A Google search yields these nauseous nuggets: “Dr. House is based off of Sherlock Holmes.” “Their favorite classic movies are based off old fairy tales.” “It’s basically a stretched out HTC One M8, which is what the tablet is based off of.” There are hundreds more.

Everyone knows the correct phrase, based on, which has been around forever. But somehow, on became off, or worse, off of—a compound preposition that all English authorities reject as substandard.

The logical conclusion is that anyone who says “based off” doesn’t know what based means. As a verb, to base means “to form a foundation for.” The noun base refers to the underlying part that something rests on, not off.

The words base and basis are closely related and sometimes synonymous. Would anybody say, “The board meets off a daily basis”?

There’s really no excuse for based off. Whoever coined it was just fooling around or talking too fast. It subsequently caught on with other knuckleheads, and now there are those who defend its legitimacy.

But based off is another example of what might be called “Frankenstein formations.” You know, grab a part from here, another part from over there, and stitch them together to create a monstrously unsuitable word or phrase. Witness how the unholy merging of regardless and irrespective begat irregardless, a gruesome beast that even pedants with pitchforks can’t drive from the countryside.

Today’s high schools and colleges turn out students with negligible language skills, and the result is heedless writing and speech. Once upon a time, people who knew their pronouns said, “You and I should invite her and her husband for dinner.” Now you’re more likely to hear, “You and me should invite she and her husband for dinner.” For some perverse reason, those who don’t watch their language tend to say things that are the precise opposite of correct.

That would seem to explain how based on became based off.


Pop Quiz

Two of the options in each sentence below are correct. Can you identify the “Frankenstein formation”?

1. I am calling in regards to/as regards/in regard to the job opening.
2. The paragraph comprises/is comprised of/is composed of three sentences.
3. The novel centers on/revolves around/centers around marriage in the eighteenth century.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. The phrase in regards to is nonstandard.
2. The phrase is comprised of is incorrect. The word comprise means “to be composed of,” so “comprised of” would mean “composed of-of.”
3. The phrase centers around is nonstandard.

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Posted on Monday, June 23, 2014, at 4:13 pm

Be Careful with the -a Team

The first letter of the alphabet is also a common English word that is virtually synonymous with one. As a word, a is the very antithesis of plurality.

This might help explain why there’s so much confusion about a group of words that I call “the -a team.” Here they are: bacteria, criteria, data, media, phenomena, Sierra. As you can see, all end in the letter a, which just sounds so darned singular that these words continue to confound even careful writers and speakers. Because the fact is, they’re all plural.

Bacteria Staphylococcus is a virulent form of bacteria. No problem there, but Staphylococcus is a virulent bacteria, well, now we have a problem. The singular is bacterium. So a sentence like The bacteria in the cut was infecting it is flawed—the bacteria were infecting it.

Criteria It’s the plural of criterion, a standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. The sentence Honesty is our chief criteria is ungrammatical; there can’t be only one criteria. Make it Honesty is our chief criterion or Honesty is one of our chief criteria. Your criteria are your standards, plural.

Those who know that criteria is plural aren’t out of the woods yet either: many believe the singular is “criterium.” And there are some who will reveal to you their “criterias.”

Data John B. Bremner, in Words on Words, states unequivocally, “The word is plural.” This one is thorny, because the singular, datum, is virtually nonexistent in English. Many people see data as a synonym for information, and to them, These data are very interesting sounds downright bizarre. Maybe, but it’s also correct. English scholar Theodore M. Bernstein says, “Some respected and learned writers have used data as a singular. But a great many more have not.”

Media Among the language’s most abused words is media, a plural noun; medium is the singular. A medium is a system of mass communication: The medium of television is a prominent component of the mass media.

Every day we hear and read statements like The media is irresponsible or The media has a hidden agenda. In those sentences, media should be followed by are and have.

There are some who prefer and defend the media is and the media has. To them, the various means of mass communication—newspapers, radio, TV, magazines, blogs, etc.—make up one “media.”

But writers should insist on the media are. It’s important that people think of the media as many voices, opinions, and perspectives rather than one monolithic entity.

Phenomena This troublemaker baffles even articulate speakers. Phenomena is plural; phenomenon is singular.

“Management is a universal phenomenon,” declares a business website. But a commentator on national television had it exactly backward. He spoke of “the phenomena of climate change” and later used phenomenon as a plural. Others say “phenomenas” when they mean phenomena.

Sierra Avoid “Sierras” when the topic is the vast California mountain range. An online camping guide says, “Translating from Spanish, sierra is plural in itself.” The Sierra Nevada Alliance, a conservation organization, elaborates: “The Sierra Nevada is a single, distinct unit, both geographically and topographically, and is well described by una sierra nevada. Strictly speaking, therefore, we should never pluralize the name—such as Sierras, or Sierra Nevadas, or even High Sierras …”

“Strictly speaking,” you say? What a concept!

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at 5:05 pm

Apostrophes and False Possessives

In English, nouns become adjectives all the time: a computer’s malfunction is also called a computer malfunction. One of Shakespeare’s plays is a Shakespeare play.

Consider the sentence Beverly Hills’ weather is mild. Like computer’s and Shakespeare’s in the previous paragraph, Beverly Hills’ is a possessive noun. But we could turn it into an adjective by removing the apostrophe: Beverly Hills weather is mild. Same with Abe Jones’s campaign is picking up steam—we could also say The Abe Jones campaign is picking up steam.

Few would argue with the apostrophe in The Beatles’ place in pop music history is assured. But how would you write this sentence: There are still countless Beatles/Beatles’ fans out there. Although many would choose Beatles’ fans, it should be Beatles fans—no apostrophe—because the sentence has turned Beatles into an adjective modifying fans rather than a possessive noun.

There are times when the distinction is trivial. There is no significant difference between General Motors cars are selling and General Motors’ cars are selling. But if you were to write We visited the General Motors’ plant in Wentzville, you’d be using a possessive noun where only an adjective should go.

Notice that the four examples above involve the nouns Hills, Jones, Beatles, and Motors. Nouns ending in s can tempt rushed or distracted writers to add a possessive apostrophe for no good reason. Many writers, including most journalists, add only an apostrophe to show possession when a proper noun ends in s. On a bad day, this can result in silly phrases like a Texas’ barbecue joint, a Sally Hawkins’ movie, or even the St. Regis’ Hotel, in which the apostrophes are indefensible.

Those who write such things would never dream of writing a Chicago’s barbecue joint, a George Clooney’s movie, or the Fairmont’s Hotel.

So whenever writers are of a mind to add a possessive apostrophe to a noun ending in s, they might first try swapping that word with one that ends in a different letter. If the result is nonsense, they’ll have ample time to revise the sentence and save themselves some embarrassment.


Pop Quiz
Mend any sentences that need fixing.

1. Julie Andrews singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work.
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones’ fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes’ approach to life.
4. Yolanda Adams music is infectious.
5. It was a Black Keys’ performance for the ages.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Julie Andrews’s singing in My Fair Lady was some of her best work. (some would write Andrews’)
2. She is a fanatical Rolling Stones fan.
3. Nigel takes a Thomas Hobbes approach to life.
4. “Yolanda Adams music,” “Yolanda Adams’s music,” and “Yolanda Adams’ music” would all be acceptable.
5. It was a Black Keys performance for the ages.

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Posted on Monday, May 19, 2014, at 6:36 pm