Singular Noun, Plural Verb

It is sometimes thought that one of the grammatical differences between AmEng (American English) and BrEng (British English) is the way in which the latter allows certain singular nouns to have plural agreement. Data for two examples from the COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) and the BNC (British National Corpus), as presented in the following table, shows the difference. The COCA contains 4.5 million words, the BNC 1 million words, so I have adjusted the COCA figures to produce results comparable to those from the BNC. The raw COCA figures are in brackets.

COCA

BNC

1a. the government is 628 (2827) 742
1b. the government are 28 (124) 303
2a. the committee is 37 (169) 79
2b. the committee are 5 (23) 18

This clearly shows that plural agreement in these two cases is indeed more frequent in BrEng than in AmEng. In both varieties singular agreement is more frequent than plural agreement, but it is more frequent by a greater factor in AmEng than in BrEng. In the case of 1, singular agreement is 22 times greater than the plural in AmEng, whereas it is only 2.5 times as frequent in BrEng.

More examples would be required to allow a definitive conclusion, but BrEng does seem, in these two instances, more sympathetic than AmEng to notional than grammatical agreement. In ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’, Pam Peters gives the examples

The family has decided to celebrate on Sunday
The family have decided to celebrate on Sunday

and suggests that ‘The singular verb implies an official consensus of the group, whereas the plural makes the reader / listener more aware that individual members assented to the suggestion.’ Much the same could be said for a comparable sentence using ‘the government’ or ‘the committee’. Peters provides a list of other words which, at least in BrEng, allow a choice between singular and plural agreement. They include, among others, audience, assembly, board, company, congregation, council, group and panel.

Why BrEng should be more adaptable in this respect is not clear. With government, at least, plural agreement isn’t new, for the OED has three citations showing its use in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the question to ask is why AmEng is so averse to it.

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34 Comments

Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language, Syntax

34 responses to “Singular Noun, Plural Verb

  1. Thanks for posting, Barry. As usual, interesting and thought-provoking.

    Do you know what the AmEng stance is on similar forms such as ‘army’, ‘police’, ‘data’ and so on? I know that in BrEng, ‘army’ is usually singular, ‘police’ is always plural, and ‘data’ can be either.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.

    Scott Richardson

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  2. dw

    The US Constitution features several instances of plural agreement:

    “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers”

    “The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.”

    “The Senate shall chuse their other Officers,”

    “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation.”

    “The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.”

    “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”

    and also of singular agreement:

    “Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, ”

    “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.”

    One sentence has both plural and singular agreement in close succession:

    “Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy;”

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  3. Peter Harvey

    Spanish is rigorous in using a singular verb with a grammatically singular subject. I see a difference in English between:
    Newtown FC is the best team on the world.
    and
    Newtown FC are playing Oldtown United on Saturday.
    It’s the perception of a single unit or a group of individuals.

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  4. The government are is so alien to my sense of AmE that I wonder if some of those CoCA hits aren’t false positives: certain parts of the government are or the like. One case that seems tolerable, though, is My family live all over the state, where my family clearly means the members of my family or the like.

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    • dw

      I was unable to find any genuine hit for “The federal government are”. I wonder whether “the government are” is so rare and unnatural in the US because of differences between the presidential and parliamentary systems: in the Westminster system, “the Government” is easily envisaged as a collection of human beings that has a role in both making executive decisions and in getting them approved by Parliament, while in the US it seems to be more amorphous.

      The phrase “the senate are ready to adjourn” has quite a few genuine nineteenth-century US hits (they turn up in Google Books, but not the main Google search, for some reason).

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  5. dw

    The difference is most startling, for me, when referring to team sports. A US source, such as the New York Times, will say things like Wales was dropping balls and missing tackles. It was losing balls at lineouts and going backward in scrums. Compare a British source: “Wales were losing 31-25 “.

    Note, in this connection, that this difference is somewhat mitigated by the fact that most US sporting teams usually have an explicitly plural name, for example “The New York Yankees”. This seems to take a plural, even in contexts where the meaning is singular. For example, “The New York Yankees were founded” has way more Google hits than “The New York Yankees was founded”.

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  6. Carl Lundquist

    In British practice, government formed by ministers serving in Parliament. The cabinet is a collective.

    In US practice, members of Congress are barred from any executive office. The cabinet and is formed by the President and its members serve at the pleasure of the President. The government is thus in the hands of a single individual — currently Barack Obama.

    That said, the most common tem that Americans use to refer to the President and his cabinet and appointees is “Administration” — as in the Obama Administration.

    The term ‘government’ is usually given to the entire structure of the executive branch and its various bureaucracies. Moreover, ‘the government ‘ is most commonly restricted to the Federal Government. This even though we have 50 states which have all the aspects of a government.

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  7. Scott – ‘The army are’ is more frequent in the BNC than in the COCA. The same goes for ‘the police are’, but not to the same degree. ‘The data are’ is roughly the same in both. Singular agreement for ‘the army’ is preferred in the BNC, but not as much as in the COCA. In both, ‘the police are’ is the clear favourite. There is not much difference between ‘the data is’ and ‘the data are’ in the BNC, but the COCA shows a preference for ‘the data are’ by nearly half as much again. I imagine there must be some historical reason, which might be worth investigating one day, why ‘the police’ is not normally treated as singular, when ‘the army’ can be.

    dw (1) – But no instances of a plural verb following a singular noun, no ‘the Senate are’ or ‘the Congress are’.

    Peter – Much the same, of course, goes for French. Is there a divide between Romance and Germanic languages on this, I wonder?

    John – That is certainly one of the dangers of trying to summarize corpus data without a thorough scrutiny. I think the majority probably are false positives, although a quick search has produced a handful that are not. But that of course only strengthens the point that plural agreement with ‘the government’ is rare in AmEng, but quite common in BrEng.

    dw (2) – Yes, the evidence against ‘the federal government are’ is even stronger. There may be something in what you say about different attitudes to the nature of ‘government’, but there seems to be a similar AmEng aversion to a plural verb with other collective nouns.

    dw (3) – As Peter has said, when it comes to sports teams, the BrEng approach seems to vary according to whether there is a ‘perception of a single unit or a group of individuals’, and I think that goes for other collective nouns too. It’s still a puzzle why AmEng doesn’t allow this distinction.

    Carl – Thank you for explaining the difference between ‘government’ and ‘administration in the US. A quick glance at the COCA shows that most of the 62 returns for ‘the administration are’ have plural subjects. In contrast, there are 1062 returns for ‘the administration is’. Again, your explanation is a good one for why both government and administration are each perceived as a singular entity, but we are no closer to knowing why AmEng doesn’t normally allow plural agreement with other collective nouns.

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  8. When ‘a lot of’ is followed by a plural noun, the following verb is plural, e.g.

    A lot of people think that …

    even though the strict grammatical subject is the noun ‘lot’, which is singular. This is because ‘lot’ has lost its semantic function and the whole 3-word phrase has come to be understood as a mere synonym of ‘many’.

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  9. Peter Harvey

    To show how strict Spanish is, I have just read this:
    el 12,7% de las escuelas aumenta la presencia de la lengua castellana en las aulas (12.7% of [Catalan] schools are increasing the presence of the Spanish language in classrooms).
    Spanish always uses a singular article (definite or indefinite) with percentages so the following verb must be singular.

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    • Can Spanish distinguish between ‘a number of . . . are . . .’ and ‘the number . . . of is . . .’? And how does it deal with ‘one in three is / are . . .’ English seems to allow both.

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      • Peter Harvey

        Spanish doesn’t use ‘número’ as in ‘a number of … are’. The others are singular.

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        • Thank you. It sounds as if Spanish, like French and American English, is not sympathetic to the ideas of notional and proximity agreement.

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        • Alon

          Standard Spanish is not sympathetic to notional agreement at all, but then, agreement is a much more salient feature in Spanish syntax than in English due to the pervasive presence of grammatical gender.

          Actual spoken Spanish seems more resistent to notional agreement than actual spoken English, but the differences are not so clear-cut. There is a fine (if brief) overview and a bunch of relevant references in Riveiro Outeiral, Sara María & Acuña-Fariña, Juan Carlos. (2012). “Agreement
          processes in English and Spanish: A completion study”. Functions of Language, 19(1):58–88.

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  10. Thank you, Alon. I suppose much the same goes for French, and perhaps other Romance languages.

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    • I have found these Spanish examples with the verb optionally singular or plural*:
      a) La familia lo felicitó/felicitaron por su cumpleaños. (The family congratulated him on his birthday)
      b) La mayor parte de los conductores respeta/respetan los semáforos. (The majority of drivers respect traffic lights).
      but my subjective feeling is that the singular is more common.

      In English maybe a) could be ‘The family was with him on his birthday’ though I would prefer ‘were’ but I can’t see a singular verb in b)

      *http://www.wikilengua.org/index.php/Concordancia_entre_sujeto_y_verbo

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  11. “La familia lo felicitó” wins on Google by 6,340 to 9, though not all are valid hits. Some have a comma or full stop between ‘familia’ and ‘lo’.

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  12. If I may return here, I have read this on the El País English website (my emphasis).

    “The couple is accused of fraud and falsifying documents on their tax statements between 2002 and 2006.”

    This seems to illustrate the kind of mess that results if singular nouns cannot be used with plural number when logically appropriate.

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  13. Sure does. Again, does El Pais use native speakers as translators?

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  14. Pingback: The Negative Canon: Agreement with Collective Nouns | Caxton

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