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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
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
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.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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.
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Our crazy English language.
1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
2) The farm was used to produce produce.
3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4) We must polish the Polish furniture.
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.
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.