From proper punctuation and the decline of the subjunctive to correct etiquette in emails and text messaging, Rogers (known at the National Geographic as StyleMaven) raises questions and renders opinions on the English language.
Collectives Can Be Plural
Posted Oct 16,2008

Here’s a current quandary of mine that I urge you readers (if there are any!) to comment on.

The October-November issue of Copyediting: Because Language Matters advises not to apply conventional rules about collective nouns too stringently or your writing will come off as jarring.

This is the example:

                “Here’s hoping that this year’s crop of economic
                advisers has the courage of their convictions.”

Here’s the advice:

                “The word has . . . should be have. . . . It is really
                a case of notional agreement: a crop of advisers
                is notionally plural, which we can see because
                ‘their convictions,’ an instinctive use, so clearly
                refers to the people and not to the noun (crop)
                used for the group.”

I agree with this argument entirely. I’ve long felt that if the individuals and their actions within a collective are being emphasized, then a plural verb is correct. If it’s the single entity that is most important, then stick to the rigid singular. Remember to be consistent and don’t mix a singular verb with a plural pronoun in the same sentence.

                “A new generation of scientists have begun a serious
                assault on the mysteries of the canopy, and it will be
                a pleasure to travel with them vicariously.”

                “A smorgasbord of fruits plucked from the canopy
                in Borneo owes its abundance to bats.” [both from NGM,
                December 1991]

Now, here’s my quandary: Should I allow the argument of notational agreement to extend to companies, organizations, governments, and other single entities made up of individuals? For example, in a 2002 political cartoon by Tom Toles this statement emanates from Air Force One:

                “We won control of Congress, but they are more
                confused than ever.”

Or this example from a memo I recently received:

                “The venerable Chautauqua Institution in upstate
                New York is dedicating an entire week of their
                nine-week summer program to literature.”

Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage defends this construction in an entry titled “on agreement: organizations considered as collective nouns.” Not only is it OK to treat companies as plural, but mixing a singular verb with a plural pronoun is permitted.

I’m not quite there—yet. What are your thoughts?

Posted by Lesley Rogers | Comments (6)
Filed Under: Grammar


v jain
Oct 16, 2008 1PM #

i too am not quite there and agree that a singular verb deserves to be paired with a singular pronoun used as the subject.

Oct 16, 2008 1PM #

I agree that a sentence needs to be consistent, so I'm afraid I disagree with Webster's. The rule of thumb I normally use (and you refer to it as well) is that if the collective noun refers to the individuals within the collective, then use plural, otherwise use singular. For example: "A sports team left their gear in the changeroom" (since the gear belongs to the individuals in the team), but "a sports team won its match" (since the team collectively won, and not the individuals).

B. Evans
Oct 16, 2008 1PM #

Consistency is the key here. For me, a collective noun may be either singular or plural (whichever seems more natural in the context), but not both at once. For example, those who insist that "couple" must be singular will reveal what they really think when a possessive adjective is also required. Thus we get absurdities such as: "The couple is now counting their blessings." The consistency principle should be applied in all cases.

B. Evans
Oct 16, 2008 1PM #

Collectives Can Be Plural - my contribution to proofreading: you have used "notational" for "notional".

I should also like to point out the following errors in the December issue, all involving a mismatch between subject and verb:

On p.55, column 2:
The condition of the sarcophagi fragments confirm that Herod remained vilified even in death: . . .

Displayed on p. 54:
The condition of the sarcophagi confirm that Herod remained vilified even in death.

Caption, p. 96:
Software upgrades beamed to the rovers after landing lets them identify and avoid obstacles autonomously.

Mary Vanderkooi
Oct 16, 2008 1PM #

Consistency is the only way to go. My own inclination is to use a singular verb with a singular subject noun, even when that noun indicates a group. However, when I do that, it appears awkward. It's good to know that using the plural is acceptable. However, then the subsequent possessive adjective also has to be plural. Mixing singulars and plurals is awful. It labels the author as an ignoramus.

Jane Shafrin
Oct 16, 2008 1PM #

Just found your blog & you write about one of my favorite topics, correct English ... How about "the team members left their gear ... " I can't get used to disagreement of nouns & verbs, but I see it all the time. No one seems to be bothered by the inconsistency. Rewriting to avoid the problem is one way to fix it, I guess ...

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