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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.

To comment on this grammar tip, click on the title.

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


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


The Wicked Of

What would prompt H.W. Fowler to pick on the word of?

Fowler (1858-1933), whom many regard as the dean of English-language scholars, ascribed to of “the evil glory of being accessary to more crimes against grammar than any other.”

Do not be fooled by looks. Weighing in at a svelte two letters, this petite preposition couldn’t appear more guileless and benign. But of is the culprit in many, perhaps most, subject-verb blunders.

Those who watch their English must constantly remind themselves not to mistake the noun in an of phrase for the actual subject. This is a key rule for understanding subjects. Hasty writers, speakers, readers, and listeners might miss the error in the following sentence: A bouquet of roses lend color and fragrance to a room.

Make it A bouquet of roses lends color and fragrance to a room. In the sentence, roses is the object of the preposition of. The true subject is bouquet (bouquet lends, not roses lend).

But once we learn that principle, here comes of to stir up yet more mischief. First, consider this sentence: He is the only one of those men who is always courteous. Where’s the mischief, you may well ask; who refers to one, calling for the singular verb is. True enough—but wait, we’re not finished.

Now look at this almost identical sentence: He is one of those men who is always courteous. That is incorrect. The correct sentence is He is one of those men who are always courteous. This time the word who refers to men, requiring the plural verb are.

Are you skeptical? If we slightly change the word order, which verb would you select: Of those men who is/are always courteous, he is one. Would anyone choose men who is?

If any armchair grammarians remain unconvinced, let them try to explain this sentence: Pope Francis is one of the popes who has led the Catholic Church for almost two thousand years. Obviously, it’s utter nonsense unless the verb is have led. It may madden us, it may sadden us, but popes—despite being the object of of—necessitates the plural verb have led.

Thus does of sabotage our best efforts. First, we train ourselves to ignore an of phrase in order to find the true subject. Then a he is one of those sentence comes along and we find that the object of the preposition of is the key to finding the correct verb.

Mr. Fowler, you do have a point.

 

Pop Quiz

These sentences contain prepositional of phrases. Correct the ones that are wrong.

 1. Neither of the books have arrived yet.

 2. Yasif is one of those people who likes Mozart.

 3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always work hard.

 4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable.

 5. Each of the brothers said they were sorry.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

 1. Neither of the books has arrived yet.

 2. Yasif is one of those people who like Mozart.

 3. Al is the only one of the carpenters who always works hard.

 4. This is one of the few chairs here that are comfortable. CORRECT

 5. Each of the brothers said he was sorry.

 

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Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014, at 5:03 pm


Media Watch 2

Recent cringe-inducers from the print media …

An upscale music venue ran ads for “An Evening With Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.” The second line said, “Formally of the 5th Dimension.” It was only after several weeks that someone caught the silly gaffe and sheepishly changed “Formally” to “Formerly.”

From an article about a musician: “He hardly fit the paradigm of an insecure singer/songwriter.” Why not “singer-songwriter,” with a hyphen, instead? In recent years the slash has become all the rage, but many authorities dismiss it as a substandard option—“a mark that doesn’t appear much in first-rate writing,” says Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. “Use it as a last resort.”

A columnist wrote, “It is I who is the bamboozled one.” At least he didn’t write “It is me.” But written correctly, the sentence would say, “It is I who am the bamboozled one.” In technical terms, the relative pronoun who agrees with its antecedent (“I”) in both number and person. If who is representing I, it must take am, the same verb that I takes.

A curious sentence about a San Francisco neighborhood: “They can kiss goodbye to Alamo Square.” No, they can say goodbye to Alamo Square. Or they can kiss Alamo Square goodbye. They could even give the beloved locale a kiss goodbye. But “can kiss goodbye to”?! Maybe the copyeditor was on vacation.

A world-famous writer of steamy novels fired a broadside at critics of her larger-than-lifestyle: “Reading the latest vitriolic article about the hedge around my house, my reaction was enormous sadness.” The sentence falls apart under close analysis: it says her “reaction” can read articles. A best-selling author who writes danglers? Say it isn’t so. She should have either replaced “Reading” with “When I read” or changed the second part to “I reacted with enormous sadness.”

Even seasoned professionals are liable to make loopy mistakes when they don’t proofread.

 

Pop Quiz
The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors.
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grieviously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whomever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correctly.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grievously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whoever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correct.”

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Posted on Tuesday, February 11, 2014, at 5:41 pm