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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.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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.
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We researched the leading reference books on American English grammar and punctuation including The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Bernstein’s The Careful Writer, and many others. As before, we will provide rules, guidance, and examples based on areas of general agreement among these authorities. Where the authorities differ, we will emphasize guidance and provide options to follow based on your purpose in writing, with this general advice: be consistent.
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From time to time, we will include in this space a few selections from the "Grandiloquent Dictionary," a collection of some of the most obscure and rare words in the English language.
abderian: given to incessant or idiotic laughter
baize: the green cloth used on billiard tables and other gaming tables
cacoethes: a bad habit or insatiable urge
dactyliology: the branch of archeology having to do with the study of gem engraving or of finger rings
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.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.