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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


When They Is a Cop-out

Ours is a language of traps and pitfalls. Anyone serious about writing in English has to take on problems no one has ever quite solved.

One of the most obstinate of these, as inescapable as it is confounding, concerns singular pronouns that have plural connotations (everyone, nobody, anyone, somebody, etc.).

Even fine writers on occasion succumb to the temptation of using they to refer to a singular pronoun. What would you do with this sentence: Someone left his? her? his or her? their? book on my desk. For decades it was customary to say someone left his book, the assumption being that his really meant his or her (in the same way mankind comprises both men and women). But that stopped being acceptable in the 1960s—the Women’s Liberation movement was having none of it.

Many writers nowadays hold their noses and go with his or her. It’s hard to find a less elegant solution, but grammatically, someone left his or her book does the job; however, someone left their book, although taboo to purists, is what you’d most likely hear in conversation.

Now consider this technically correct sentence: I asked everybody, but he wouldn’t tell me. Anybody who would write that must be tone-deaf, perverse, facetious, or fanatical. What good is a “technically correct” sentence that is so silly and confusing? Changing it to but he or she wouldn’t tell me is hardly an improvement. If you chose to avoid this mess by writing but they wouldn’t tell me, it would be hard to blame you. But if good grammar is important, how about I asked everybody, but no one would tell me.

Last November, a West Coast newspaper editorial dealt with the problem this way: “Under California law, the governor is allowed to choose a replacement for a statewide-elected official who vacates her post midterm.” Fair enough, but though the motive is laudable, the sentence feels somehow forced. Why not replace “vacates her post” with “leaves office.”

Let’s try to rewrite the following sentences and mollify the curmudgeons …

Read a book to a child. Maybe they’ll do something good with their life.

Rewrite: Read a book to a child. Maybe that youngster will accomplish something in life.

If anyone wants to become the next David Letterman, they won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

Rewrite: Anyone who wants to become the next David Letterman won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.

The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or each will bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

Rewrite: The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or they will each bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

English scholars say that using they to agree with singular pronouns can be traced back at least seven centuries. But that doesn’t mean it’s all right to do so. It simply means that there’s nothing new about avoiding challenges when we can take the easy way out.

 

Pop Quiz

How would you deal with pronoun inconsistencies in these sentences? Compare your solutions with ours in the answers section.

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get their money back.

2. What if someone asks you what you’re doing at their car?

3. What we don’t want is for someone to turn their unit into a full-time vacation inn.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get a full refund.

2. What if someone asks you, “What are you doing at my car?”

3. What we don’t want is for owners to turn their units into full-time vacation inns.

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Posted on Monday, April 28, 2014, at 6:40 pm