Monday, July 09, 2007

collective noun agreement

Sorry for the unexplained gap in posts. I was busy making an honest man of Better Half. I also reali{s/z}e that I've been somewhat selfish lately, just writing about things that I want to write about. Me, me, me. But now I that I'm a responsible member of the venerable institution of marriage, I guess it's all supposed to be about selflessness and compromise and all that jazz. So, back, finally, to responding to some of your requests.

Let's go way back. To November! How neglectful I've been! (Well, kind of--I responded to this correspondent's first question here. And this issue has been mentioned a little before, most recently in the comments for this post.) Jackie, an American who briefly lived in London, wrote to say:
I found British English atrocious. [...] Brits [...] have a strong tendency to use singular nouns with the plural form of verbs, e.g., "The gang are going to have a tough time protecting their patch," and "MIA are looking into terrorist links."
Now, Jackie, I have to say that I'm surprised that a graduate of UCLA's linguistics program(me) would use the word atrocious to refer to another variety of English! Let's all recite together now the descriptive linguists' mantra: Different dialects are different, but that doesn't make them better or worse than your dialect! Both AmE and BrE have 'logical' subject-verb agreement systems, they're just a bit different in the assumptions/preferences behind them.

Let's start with the nouns that are concerned here. It's not just any singular noun that can go with a plural verb form in BrE; it's specifically collective nouns--that is, nouns that refer to collections or collectivities (particularly, in the BrE examples, collections of people). These kinds of nouns are a bit funny. Let's look at Jackie's first example:
BrE: The gang are going to have a tough time protecting their patch.

...which in (most, standard) AmE would be:
AmE: The gang is going to have a tough time protecting its/their patch.
Notice here that while AmE strongly prefers a singular verb with a noun like gang or committee or team, it's a bit looser when it comes to pronoun agreement with such collective nouns. Thus, we can find lots of examples with a singular verb and a singular pronoun, but also examples in which the plurality of a committee (i.e. the fact that it's made up of individuals) comes through in the pronoun, but not the verb:
After questions are concluded, you and any guests will be asked to leave while the committee makes its decision. [From a University of Oregon document]

[A]ll will be notified once the committee makes their decision. [From the Westchester (NY) County Board of Legislators]
The indecision about pronoun agreement (and contrast in pronoun and verb agreement) indicates that the case of collective nouns is complicated. Grammatically, they have singular form. Semantically (i.e. in meaning), they refer to things that are inherently plural. For most nouns, the grammatical and the semantic match up--so it's hard to say whether the agreement between subject noun and verb is being triggered by the word's semantic or grammatical status. But in the case of collective nouns, we can see different varieties of English taking different strategies. BrE prefers semantic agreement (when the collective refers to animate beings, at least), and AmE prefers grammatical agreement--most of the time.

It's not really that simple, though. There are times when AmE speakers use plural agreement, in order to emphasi{s/z}e the individuality of the members of the collective (and this gets some discussion over at Language Log). So, take for example the following:
The jury disagree. [plural verb]
versus
The jury disagrees.
[singular verb]
The City University of New York's Writing Centre guide states strongly that the plural verb must be used in this case:
Some words you might not realize are plural:
[...]
Collective nouns that represent a group of individuals who are acting independently. Whereas, for example, the word “jury” would take a singular verb when the jurors act in concert (“the jury decided that ... ”), it would take a plural verb when differences between the group are emphasized.

Wrong: “The jury disagrees [among themselves] on this issue.”

Right: “The jury disagree on this issue.”
And in BrE, when it's very clear that the collective is to be thought of as a unit, not as individuals, then a singular verb is perfectly acceptable, as in the book title:
My Family Is All I Have: A British Woman's Story of Escaping the Nazis and Surviving the Communists
Thus BrE allows a distinction between (a) and (b) below, while (b) would sound more awkward in AmE:
(a) My family is big. [i.e. there are 10 of us]
(b) My family are big. [i.e. the individuals are super-size]
Thus, AmE speakers tend to avoid sentences like (b) and to rephrase them as something like The members of my family are all big.

The moral of the story is: collective noun agreement is tricky. A semantic strategy is probably more flexible than a grammatical strategy, but people can communicate just fine with either strategy!

27 comments:

Fnarf said...

Many Americans were introduced to this British usage by The Beatles, when George warbled "you may think the band are not quite right" in "Only A Northern Song".

Mark Etherton said...

I seem to remember that when I joined the Foreign Office twenty-odd years ago, I was told that Her Majesty's Government (i.e. the British Government) was always singular, but that a foreign government was plural - presumably because foreign regimes were more fissiparous.

dearieme said...

Congratulations to your man and felicitations to you. Do you think that a "couple" should take the singular or plural verb?

lynneguist said...

My AmE intuitions tell me that I can say:

The couple is on their honeymoon.

But:

The couple is on its honeymoon.

Sounds weird!

Not that any honeymooning is going on--I'm at a conference in Sweden!

reuben said...

This difference is particularly obvious when discussing sports team - and for me, the differences indicate that the British way is more consistent. Not that this makes it "better English", by any stretch.

For example, you say "Arsenal are hoping to sign a striker" or "The Gunners are hoping to sign a striker" (and of course team nicknames are far less common/important in the UK, but that's another issue), whereas in the US it's "Atlanta is looking for a pitcher" or "The Braves are looking for a pitcher."

Howard said...

Just a query: in AmE, which is preferred: 'The police are investigating ...' or 'The police is investigating...'?

What about other forces, like the Army, Navy, Airforce? Would Americans be more likely to say 'The Navy is ...' or '... are ...'?

I imagine there is not so much of a problem with the Marines, since that word is obviously plural, so you would say, 'The Marines were ...'. However, if 'the Marine Corps' were the subject of that sentence, would Americans tend to use 'was' or 'were'?

Ginger Yellow said...

The (London based) publication I write for uses British English spellings but insists on using the singular form for companies and other institutions. It took me years to get used to it, and I still occasionally mess it up.

flashgordonnz said...

ALthough my spell checker is set to UK english, it insists that I change "Staff are advised" to "staff is advised"...

flashgordonnz said...

Maybe I should use "employees" or "associates"? "Team members"?

aminquiry said...

I look forward to every single installment of this blog. Thank you, lynneguist, for your insights!

Howard makes an interesting point! We Americans treat police as a plural even though by rights it ought to be a collective ("The police are investigating....). I wonder what is the origin of that departure from the rule?

One may avoid the "couple" pronoun problem altogether by stating "The couple is honeymooning" or "The couple is on a honeymoon."

I'm a proofreader. If this sentence crossed my desk,
[A]ll will be notified once the committee makes their decision. [From the Westchester (NY) County Board of Legislators]
I would not hesitate a moment to correct the pronoun to its, NOT their. Following the rule stated earlier, the committee is acting in accord (it must if it makes a final decision) and should be regarded as a unit. The separate members of the committee are not issuing individual decisions...at least I hope not for Westchester County's sake.

They is NEVER a singular in my book. I would argue that the rule for matching pronouns and antecedents is not actually "looser" in standard American English. But it has been ignored in informal (nonstandard) American speech so frequently and persistently that many people don't realize there is a rule there to break.

The Chicago Manual of Style draws a distinction between mass nouns ("indeterminate aggregations") and collective nouns and notes that while mass nouns are always treated as plurals, collectives may be treated as singular or plural depending on context, as in the "jury" example in the blog.

One final comment. I have noticed over the last couple years that many American TV journalists have begun to adopt the British collective usage ("The team are...").

lynneguist said...

Police acts as a plural in both AmE and BrE. It's not a collective noun, but an aggregate--like people or cattle. There's a discussion of the difference on this forum. Note that you can't say (in most dialects) a police or polices, but you can say a team or teams. (People is a little different because it has two meanings, one of which can be made plural, and one of which is already plural.)

On the issue of plural their, the "rule" that says that their is always plural is a fairly recent and artificial invention in English. There's an article about this here, though I must admit I've only skimmed it, as I must run and give my paper at this conference!

aminquiry said...

Enlightening as always!

When compared to "cattle" or "people", the police explanation does make more sense.

The singular they article gives me a lot to chew. It has an interesting history to be sure.

Thanks for the references!

Almeda said...

This actually came up in my freshman comp class (I'm a returning adult student) just yesterday; we'd done a bunch of timed, in-class essays, and before passing them back she was writing 'troublesome' example sentences on the board and having us collectively edit them back to 'correct'.

We have 5 ESL students out of a class of 12 or so, total. One of the things that came up was that 'Goverment' takes a singular verb in AmE, plzthx.

Kay said...

What you billed as "The City University of New York's Writing Centre" is actually the CUNY Law School's Writing Center. Their guide is not necessarily reflective of CUNY-wide style standards.

Doug Sundseth said...

Reuben:

US sports teams are mostly treated differently based on facial plurality of the name. For instance:

The Detroit Red Wings are hoping to win a Stanley Cup, but the Colorado Avalanche is hoping to stop them this year.

But:

The Colorado Avalanche is hoping to win a Stanley Cup this year, but the Detroit Red Wings are hoping to stop _them_.

While "it" would be consistent here, it's not idiomatic in the versions of AmE that I'm familiar with.

Howard:

Army, Navy, Air Force (note that this is two words), Marine Corps: "is"

Marines: "are"

Example:
"USAF has announced" 1260 GHits
"USAF have announced" 2 GHits

Howard said...

That's very clear, Doug (and others); thank you for it.

There is a useful section about current BrE usage in the Concise OED's (11th ed., 2004) Appendix 11, Guide to Good English.

If Lynne doesn't mind, I'll post a link to a transcription of the passage which I made for a forum I belong to. (It would be a bit difficult to transcribe it with the complex formatting it requires here,and I am not expert in 'Blogger mark-up'. In fact I don't even know whether the following URL will be a successful clickable link!):
www.ukusforum.com/index.php/topic,2122.msg27105.html#msg27105

TTFWEB said...

I grew up in the US with an AM dad and UK mom - both constructions in your example sound right to me. Funny enough (I work with both Brits and Yanks daily), I find myself shifting my own speech to the majority, most of the time not realizing it.

Great blog,
Best of luck
TTF

Krista said...

Firstly, as a Yank in the UK, I love your site.

Secondly, as a Yank in the UK working for an American company with a bunch of English co-workers, nothing causes more drama back in HQ than press releases drafted by our UK-reared staff. The UK team (!) prefers (Our Company Name) ARE. The Americans edit it all back to (Our Company Name) IS. Long-winded e-mail discussions ensue.

Happens every single time. So...many thanks for the invaluable reference that I can now use when defending my English co-workers! (Assuming that I am correct in inferring that company names take the plural in BrE and the singular in AmE.)

Phil said...

I've only really come up against this in the context of music - in BrEng, not only might you think the band were not quite right, you might think Pink Floyd or the Jam (or the Beatles) were not quite right. Using a singular verb with a pluralised band name ("the Hawks was Dylan's touring group") seems particularly perverse - but I suppose it's inherently no more perverse than doing the opposite ("the Band were Dylan's touring group"), which sounds normal to a BrEng ear.

Ultimately there's no right answer - "the Smiths are going into the studio" carries a faint implication that each individual Smith has made a separate decision to go into the studio, rather than that the group is working as a unit. On the other hand, "the Smiths is splitting up" faintly implies that an entity is ceasing to exist, rather than that the individual members are going their separate ways. It's horse[s] for course[s].en

Janet said...

Belated congratulations to you both! I hope you are as happy as John and I are, after our year-and-a-half of marriage!

Janet

Bob Yates said...

Good to read your blog, Lynne.

The collective noun issue is one of the differences in the American and English versions of the Harry Potter books.

In the first text, look at play-by-play of the first Quittich match.

In the original/English version, you will find "Gryffindor have the quaffle."

In the American translation, you will find, "The Gryffindors have the quaffle."

{In the US we get British-speakers soccer/football commentators, they invariably use plural noun agreement for team names.)

And, there is an interesting decision made about "red card." In the original version, there is no explanation about a red card. The American version has explanation about a red card before noting that Quittich, unlike soccer (of course), does not have red card.

Bob Yates, University of Central Missouri

lynneguist said...

Bob Yates! Now there's a name from my Illinoisan past...

Anonymous said...

My family are watching TV, and is wondering: when in history does one first detect that American side are different from the way the British is, regarding collective nouns? (Note, I've tried to be tolerant of both dialects in the above grammar. But in reading it back, I realize that sometimes the harder you try, diverse it gets.)

I have observed a slow evolution of the language reqarding choice of number for collective nouns, and I predict that the British preference (ie., for semantic, rather than grammatical agreement of number in a sentence) will take over in the years to come. I have noticed that educated Americans (including sports commentators) who are frequently exposed to the British usage are slowly beginning to adopt it, for the obvious cultural reason that British usage is universally perceived by Americans as more cosmopolitan.

The change has been slow. Americans have been exposed for some time now to the British way through mass media, the British pop explosion, work (globalization, email, and the ubiquitous global teleconference), and an increased Yank following for the other "football", especially English league football.

The reason for the slow pace is that "Arsenal are" sounds positively bizarre to Americans who grew up in isolation from the British style. After years of daily exposure, I find that it is only recently that it begins to sound natural to me. (It is also creeping into my own emails, especially when there are no Yanks on distribution).

The massive and continuing cultural shift in the general level of American self-esteem will accelerate this adoption of the British convention (assuming there is no sudden and miraculous recovery in U.S. mental health.)

Chris Cummins said...

Not sure if it's about "mental health" but both agreement rules are thriving this summer.

It's very interesting to watch the very confused coverage of this World Cup on ESPN; the American commentators will say things like "Cameroon really needs to score" and their British partners will go right back with "Yes, Cameroon are pushing for the equaliser."

Sometimes you'll find alternation between the forms even by a single person, like Ian Darke [who also manages to be Americanly enthusiastic and Britishly dry at the same time]

http://soccer.fanhouse.com/2010/06/23/darke-provides-red-white-and-blue-world-cup-call/

Jay said...

This may sound egotistical but, in general, I can't help judging my spelling by the way I'd say it. I got the link for this article from a comment the web-author left on another page about whether or not the "US" should be delivered in a singular or plural context. I think grammar isn't just the way it's spelt; you have to judge what sounds right too. Having said that, you can't deny obvious grammar. (And here's where the egotism kicks in) I don't care what those ol' critics and scholars say, the US ARE. Americans can argue all they want, but the United States, regardless of the patriotic symbolism of their merging into one, are a bunch of states (obviously) united (even more obviously) under one country's banner. That's why America "is" and the US "are". Regardless of its metaphorical/historical significance, grammatically, when you speak of the US, you refer to a multitude of places. Take the UK for example: a Kingdom is a single entity. So the "Kingdom" is united under itself, hence "the UK is". If you've unified states, they're still states, but "United". This may sound ridiculously blatant, but they're not one thing. Take this also: "The committee is busy". Some would argue it should be "are", but why? "Committee" is a title given to a unit of undividuals, to refer to them as a whole. When speaking of the "United States", you're mentioning all of the states that are connected, regardless of if they're suggestively one common land. Call me old-fashioned but I do agree that "patriotic pride is not schoolmaster to syntax". Perhaps it should have been named United America!

Anonymous said...

Some time ago I was puzzled when I heard a question on ITV: "Which one of the judges appeared with their dogs?" I didn't get a use of "their" here at all.
Is this a similar problem?

lynneguist said...

That's just singular 'they', which is common in BrE and AmE and, despite what some people believe, perfectly normal. Shakespeare used it, so it's good enough for me. It's becoming more common in edited writing now because of its useful gender-neutrality.

There are quite a few articles about it on Language Log, in case you're interested in reading more.