Originally posted September 2011
Would seem that I owe sports journalists worldwide an apology: you aren’t singlehandedly destroying English after all.
For more than 20 years I’ve been haranguing sports writers for making it acceptable to use plural verbs with collective nouns – in the sense, “Collingwood are heading straight for the finals” – and therefore bringing down the integrity of the language I love. Indeed, reading or hearing this “abuse” of English has been enough to send me into a rant with a level of ferocity normally reserved for decrying rapists and abuses of individual rights.
An exchange on Twitter with the highly respected team from The Guardian Style Guide (@guardianstyleguide), however, sat me firmly on my behind, and left me questioning my two-decade-long quest to defend this grammar rule against all threats.
It appears that in UK English (my English of choice) both verb forms are acceptable and if used wisely can convey a more precise meaning – US English tends to adhere to singular verbs only.
Naturally, this sparked the action you would expect from a non-believer: the search for collaboration. And with 63,400 Google hits on the subject, I’m clearly not the only one seeking clarity.
What I learned:
- Technically, collective nouns are “count nouns” – collections of things (normally people) that can be counted – one government, two teams, three groups.
- Mass nouns, furniture, water and the like, are not technically collective nouns, but since a lot of people think they are and there is a lot of confusion, they are often referred to as collective nouns.
- Words that describe groups of animals are called terms of venery (though no one seems to use this word, which also means the pursuit of, or indulgence in, sexual pleasure)
- There are two types of collective noun-verb agreement, formal and notional.
It was this last point, notional agreement that I had always thought was incorrect grammar. Notional agreement allows for the idea that the individuals in a group can act independently and therefore requires a plural verb. Formal agreement is the “pure” case, where the collective noun is singular and the verb is singular.
Here’s an example
The team is fighting against the clock.
The season is going down hill quickly because the team are fighting.
The first sentence shows that the team is working as a unit – together they are fighting against the clock.
The second case shows that the individual members of the team are fighting, in this case each other.
Just last month I would have said this second sentence was wrong, that it needed additional words or a different phrasing. For instance: The season is going down hill quickly because of infighting; or The season is going down hill quickly because the team members are fighting.
So, going back to my original point, strictly speaking Collingwood as a team is heading to the finals, so I maintain my stance that this is wrong. I do however have to concede that sports journos have not caused the population in general to be poor grammarians.
And while I’m in an apologetic mood, I should probably eat humble pie and admit that in this case I side with US English punctuation. A big sorry to any American I have scorned over the years for over-simplifying and therefore destroying the language.
Better run; I can see some pigs flying past my window and suspect the sudden drop in temperature denotes hell freezing over.
- A fantastic explanation with plenty of examples of formal vs notional care at Grammar Bytes.
- Patti Smith (Bloggingtips.com) takes agreement a step further, also discussing how to write about amounts and numbers.
- The Guardian Style Guide’s entry on collective nouns (scroll down the alphabetical listing).
- For those who want the details, Wikipedia gives a lengthy account of collective nouns including a section called “Metonymic merging of grammatical number” (?)