Whale-spotting?

Some years back, I commented that the Great White Whale of this blog–the Britishism that seems least likely to succeed in the U.S.–is plural verb for collective noun, as in “Parliament are voting.” Over the years, most of the examples I’ve found relate to soccer/football, or more broadly to sports: “the Miami Heat are..” or (infrequently) “the team are…”

Today, NOOBs friend Wes Davis points out a New York Times headline that demonstrates the usage in a non-athletic context:

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 12.15.10 PMI don’t have access to the Times stylebook but I did search the newspaper’s archives for “Taliban believe” (11 hits) and “Taliban believes” (two hits), so the headline is consistent with past practice. But it may be less a matter of using British style than paying attention to etymology.  According to Wikipedia, “Taliban” is Pashto for “students–that is, it’s a plural.

10 responses to “Whale-spotting?

  1. scott daniels

    I, too,stumbled when I saw that headline in the NYT.

  2. My gut says that “Taliban…their” is less of an anomaly than “Taliban are” in AmE. That would take more than my anecdotal evidence to confirm, of course, but it’s just a feeling, maybe related to the rise of “singular they.”

  3. I hadn’t actually noticed the “their”–was focusing on “name” instead of “names.” I agree that use of “their” is related to rise of singular they.

  4. I’m Canadian so am caught in that horrible web of Britishism and Americanism, which means I’d go in a totally different direction and say, “Taliban name … ITS new leader.” But then we Canadians also refer to multiple alcoholic beverages in the singular. “I drank 6 beer last night.”

  5. As a Brit, the American use of singular verbs with collective nouns, particular in sport (e.g. “Leicester City is going to win the league”) really jars. However, I don’t think we would say “Parliament are…” You would say “Parliament is sitting today” or “Parliament has passed a piece of legislation”. Complicated, innit?

  6. I have heard a BBC reporter, no less, begin a sentence with the words “China are considering….” It’s an absolute blight and a plague on the English language, and I hate it. I predict that eventually the verb declension “is” will cease to exist. (Come to think of it, Swedish uses är for singular and plural persons in the present tense of the verb to be.)

    • “the “China are” thing annoyed me as well.
      When I was at school, in the UK, in the 60’s/70’s, it was drilled into us that collective nouns were singular except in certain circumstances. For example, “the regiment are going to Iraq” would have been wrong in those days!

  7. Rolling Stone uses the plural verb for collective noun very consistently when referring to bands (“U2 are in the studio this week…”). It sounds to this American like an affectation, and I believe it is.

  8. In the 90s we had seven long years of a Prime Minister, John Major, intoning “The government are…” It nearly drove me to emigrate. The dreary man is now popping to tell us to vote to remain. If he doesn’t get off the TV I’m voting to leave!

  9. Peter from Oz

    Substitute ‘Sheep’ or ‘Fish’ for Taleban and the NYT headline makes perfect sense.

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