Plural verb for collective noun

This is the Great White Whale of this blog. (Well, one of them, along with you lot and I should have done.) Every once in a while, I am tempted to shout, “Thar she blows!” Wes Davis recently suggested to me that he spied a large albino form on the horizon, so I hunted around and came up with:

“The team are planning for its first trip in June and hopes to begin work by documenting natural orchid pollination…” (Jacksonville Courier, January 28)

“The team are composed of two types of people who usually don’t mingle.” (Bradenton Herald, January 27)

“As for the Midwest bias, I imagine it’s because the team are Big 10 fans or because Robb Heineman is a Notre Dame guy.” (Kansas City Star, January 10)

This may sound impressive, but in fact these are outliers, squeezed to the margins by a sea of the team is‘s. And it would be a fool’s errand to even look for the government are or the company are.

Still, a guy can dream, can’t he?

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17 responses to “Plural verb for collective noun

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

    US Constitution Article I

    • This is consistent with current American use, in which, when collective (“House”) is followed by plural (“Representatives”), verb can be either singular or plural, but is most often plural. A group of my friends come over every night. A bunch of grapes work well as a dessert. A team of Huskies pull the sled.

      • So “House of Representatives” is like “gaggle of geese”? Consider me unconvinced (at least grammatically).

        However, the issue is academic, because in the same section of the Constitution we find The Senate shall chuse their other Officers…

      • This “current American use” is an example of our changing language, as it is the exact opposite of what I was taught in high school half a century ago, i.e., then it would have been “A group…comes,” “A bunch…works,” and “A team…pulls….”

      • Here’s an N-gram for “The House of Representatives are” vs. “The House of Representatives is” in American English (not the search is case-sensitive, in order to rule out phrases such as “The members of the House of Representatives are …”).

        It doesn’t provided much support for your hypothesis that “The House of Representatives” can take plural forms in contemporary American English.

      • I now officially drop that hypothesis, DW.

  2. This is perhaps one of the more mystifying, confusing, and difficult topics to ken in the language. I gather from the post that the plural, not the singular, verb is considered to be the correct one to use with a collective noun. Other questions aside, as a former math major, I must ask, “What if the collection (a.k.a., set) consists of a single unit?”

  3. completely off topic but I’m tickled by “how you going, mate?”

    • Tell me more, Sharon–that’s a new one on me.

      • Keith Donovan

        A very common Australian greeting, sounding somewhat like “Hair goan, mate?” As a Brit, I’m more used to “How’s it going, mate?” Both are general purpose informal greetings among males, although the Britishism, without the “mate”, can also be a genuine query by either sex as to progress.

  4. The examples of plural verbs are great, but the first one includes a singular possessive pronoun, so a singular verb would have at least been consistent within the sentence.

  5. The first one combines both, and is probably just really sloppy writing rather than Britishism:

    *its* first trip… *hopes* to begin work…

  6. I was taught, in copy editing classes both in the USA and England, that this kind of thing depends on context, and that made sense to me. I do tend to see plural verbs used in the UK slightly more often, and singular usage that jars (e.g., “The couple is honeymooning in Hawaii.”) most often in the USA. I find the first two examples here jarring. I would recast both whether I was editing/subbing in either country. The first one is especially strange with its mismatched use of “its” and “hopes”. When “the team” is seen as an entity as in the second sentence, I contend that the singular verb should be used.. If you can replace “the team” with “the members of the team” or “the team members” , as you can in the first and third sentences, all verbs and pronouns should be plural.

  7. The Tories (the Conservative Party) tend to use “the Government are” whereas the Labour uses “the Government is”. This was certainly the case in my day during the Thatcher and Heath eras, and we (certainly I) remember this difference when the party political broadcasts on TV came on.

  8. Joining you for the first time from the UK, I am highly entertained and amused. I had NO IDEA that the linguistic traffic went both ways!

    The single most annoying feature, for me, of Microsoft Word is that it always flags the usage “the staff are…” as incorrect, even though this is perfectly normal British usage. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard “the staff is…” here – it jars badly.

  9. Yep, ‘the staff is’ sounds like you’re talking about a stick. It does depend on context. ‘The team’ would probably have ‘are’ but other single collectives can be given an ‘is’ or go either way: ‘the group is’, ‘The group are’
    Looking at it the process in reverse, words like ‘data’ and ‘phenomena’ seem to be increasingly losing their plural sense.

  10. Interesting comparison here: Nouns: Formal and notional agreement:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_and_British_English_differences

    The differences seem more obvious to americans it seems. I can’t say I’d noticed it before.

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