Monday, April 27, 2015

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part Two: Collective Nouns

Last time, we discussed a few common things that cause writers to make mistakes with their subject-verb agreement. Today we’ll discuss a few more.

Collective Nouns

A collective noun is a word that defines a group as a single unit—words like team, family, staff, crowd, audience, band, and so forth. Technically speaking, such nouns are singular and can be pluralized like any other noun: teams, families, etc.

When it comes to subject-verb agreement, however, collective nouns don’t always act singular. Take these two examples:

     The jury is delivering its verdict.
     The jury are taking their seats.

In the first example, the word jury is singular; in the second, it is plural. Why the difference? Well, in the first example, we’re referring to the jury as a single unit doing one thing—we’re focused on the action of the group, and not the individuals in the group, so jury is treated as a singular noun. In the second example, we’re thinking of the individuals within the group—several people taking several seats, rather than one unit taking a seat. In this sort of usage, it is acceptable to treat the collective noun as a plural. Here are some other examples:

     The audience is losing its energy.
     Remind the audience to look beneath their seats to see if they won a prize.
     The class is behaving well today.
     The class are preparing their presentations for tomorrow.

Now, if the examples of collective nouns used as plurals seem odd, that’s because they are—in the United States, at least. Many of them would sound more natural if an actual plural noun were substituted for the collective noun:

     The jury members are taking their seats.
     The students are preparing their presentations for tomorrow.

Proper collective nouns

A proper noun is a name or title of some sort; a proper collective noun, therefore, is a name or title that refers to a group.

Bands and other musical groups: Generally, musical groups should take the form of verb and pronouns that suits the form of their name.

     The Red Hot Chili Peppers are amazing in concert.
     Queen is still my favorite band.

Companies and other organizations: The names of companies should generally be treated as singular.

     Marvel has announced its next few movies.
     General Motors hasn’t sold as well as expected.

Note, however, that it is not uncommon to use plural construction with companies whose name is a series of names (with or without a word like “associates” at the end).

     Williamsen, Ovard, and Associates have had a great year.

Sports teams: Generally speaking, sports teams are treated as plurals, no matter the form their name takes.

     The Utah Jazz have been performing well since they changed their lineup.

But when we refer to a team by the location where it resides, however, it usually takes the singular:

     Chicago is just destroying anyone that comes against it on the court.

(Note that these guidelines are for US usage. In the UK and many other places, it is more common to use the plural whenever the actions of a group are being described.)

Also note that these guidelines are for existing collective nouns; if you're writing speculative fiction that delves into the notion of collective in a far more literal or complicated manner, then you're on your own when it comes to figuring out how to properly determine where to use the plural or the singular. Good luck.

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