The Negative Canon: Agreement with Collective Nouns

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

I repeat here some of the points I made in an earlier post.

A default position in many languages is that a verb agrees in person and number, and sometimes gender, with the subject of the clause. Thus, in Standard English, we say The trees are green and the sky is blue. We don’t say *The trees is green and the sky are blue. (There is at least one exception. In Arabic, if the subject is plural and denotes things or animals, the verb is feminine singular.)

Now, there are some English words that have no plural marker, and yet which refer to a group of entities. They are usually called collective nouns. Here’s a selection of such words, taken from ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’:

class clergy club committee
company congregation council couple
crew crowd delegation department
executive faculty family government
group jury mob office
orchestra pair panel parliament
pu blic quartet team trio
union

Should these words be followed by a verb in the singular or plural, when both are available? Is it The crowd was becoming restless or The crowd were becoming restless? The orchestra plays that piece particularly well or The orchestra play that piece particularly well?

Well, it all depends. A few, not included above, always occur with a plural verb (cattle, people, police), while others (baggage, cutlery, dinnerware) always occur with a single verb. (Examples of the first from ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ and of the second from ‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’.) Those apart, BrEng (British English) seems more disposed than AmEng (American English) to follow a singular noun like government with a plural verb. Once the figures are adjusted to take account of the difference in the sizes of the corpora, the British National Corpus has ten times as many records as the Corpus of Contemporary American English for the government are. As the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ report (my emphasis):

The plural version is more common in BrE than in AmE — and in informal style rather than in formal written style, where some writers may have the feeling that the singular is grammatically more correct. It must be emphasised, however, that the plural construction is unquestionably fully grammatical in Standard English, and this is generally recognised by the usage manuals.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ describes collective nouns as having had ‘the characteristic of being used with both singular and plural verbs since Middle English’, and goes on to state:

The principle involved . . . is simple: when the group is thought of as a unit, the singular verb is used; when it is thought of as a collection of individuals, the plural verb is used. All grammarians and usage commentators agree on the basic principle.

The  ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ supports this approach:

Singular collective nouns like team, government, committee allow either singular or plural concord in British English, but in American English the singular is the normal choice . . . Plural concord, where it occurs, puts the focus on the individuals making up the group, rather than the group as a whole . . . In fact, nearly all human collective nouns occasionally occur with plural concord in British English.

Pam Peters elaborates on the choice in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English’, where she explains the difference of emphasis between singular and plural agreement with the examples:

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

She comments:

The choice of verb makes it either formal or notional agreement, and carries slightly different implications. 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.

R L Trask goes further in ‘Mind the Gaffe’, where he writes:

In British English, the verbal agreement may be either singular or plural. It is always plural when the writer has the several members of the group in mind . . . But it is commonly plural even when the group is thought of as a unitary entity.

Even the normally stern and dogmatic Harry Blamires concedes in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ that:

. . . while it is correct to say ‘The audience was small’, it is also correct to say ‘The audience were screaming and waving their hands’. In the former case, ‘the audience’  is the whole body. In the latter case ‘the audience is the gathered individuals.

Thus, to insist, as some seem to do, on formal, rather than notional, agreement with collective nouns in all contexts is to deny the practice of many speakers of the language, to challenge the conclusions of respected linguists and to be insensitive to the range of expression which English has to offer.

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7 Comments

Filed under The Negative Canon

7 responses to “The Negative Canon: Agreement with Collective Nouns

  1. I would say that in AmE notional agreement works only with distributive and not with collective plurals, the distinction that Trask (an American) makes but rejects for BrE.

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    • Do you have a reference for Trask on distributives, John? I haven’t considered it at any length, but I’d say, for example, that both ‘Neither the King nor the Queen was present’ and ‘Neither the King nor the Queen were present’ were possible in BrEng. ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ suggests that in such cases ‘the singular verb seems to particularize while the plural one generalizes’.

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  2. Pingback: The Negative Canon: Singular ‘they’ | Caxton

  3. Alon

    There is at least one exception.

    More than one, if you are going beyond English. In Attic Greek, Persian (both Old and modern) and other morphologically-rich IE languages, neuter plural subjects take singular verbs. The Classics knew this as synesis or constructio ad sensum. I would think these antecedents are well-known to specialists.

    My intuitive impression of my own use (L2 speaker, UK resident) follows John Cowan’s rule.

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    • Interesting that two IE languages should share that feature with a Semitic one.

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      • Alon

        I don’t think one could say with any confidence whether these developments are inherited or a case of concurrent evolution. The Greek verbal system was notoriously innovative, and Persian could have borrowed the trait from the neighbouring Semitic languages. I know there are cases of constructio ad sensum in Biblical Hebrew, which could suggest a broader distribution in the Semitic family, but I’m far from a specialist and I don’t know whether these are systematic.

        Perhaps one of the eminent historical linguists at Language Hat could shed some light on this.

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