Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Collective Nouns

Microsoft show ‘faster’ Windows 7, proclaims the headline (BBC News, 2 September 2009).

While this may look like a subject–verb agreement error to many readers, in British English it is in fact correct.

That’s because British English very often uses plural verbs with what appear to be singular collective nouns, where singular verbs would be the norm in Singapore English and American English.

A collective noun is essentially a group of animate individuals, who may function as individuals (+ plural verb) or as a single unit (+ singular verb). Common collective nouns include staff, crew, group, team, committee, family, flock, police, public, audience, police, army, media, class, institution, university, and businesses (e.g. Microsoft above).

British English often allows a choice between a singular or a plural verb. A singular verb is preferred if the emphasis is on the unit as a single entity, e.g. The committee is undecided, while a plural verb suggests that its members are acting as individuals, e.g. My committee are always quarrelling among themselves.

Collective nouns like police always take plural verbs in British English, as do sports teams, e.g. Argentina have qualified for the World Cup. Singapore English generally favours singular verbs, except in sports reporting, in which it is clearly influenced by British English.

Some collective nouns are always singular in form, e.g. police (not *polices). Others are countable (singular or plural), e.g. family/families, group/groups. Yet others are only rarely found in the plural, e.g. staff/staffs, crew/crews, meaning two or more sets of staff/crew (not staff/crew members ), as in The staffs of the White House and Downing Street.


Anonymous said...

Awesome blog! I just stumbled across it and I love what I am reading so far.

I have a question about "police" if you could answer it.

I've read that "police" always needs to have plural verb agreement such as

"The police are here."

"The police have caught the criminal."

Knowing that, how does one reconcile the singular verb agreement in this statement?

"This is the police."

Thanks for the help! :o)

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Hi there

Thanks for your kind words!

I'm not entirely sure, but my guess is this: although, as subject, "police" always takes a plural verb--as in "The police are here"/"The police have caught the criminal"--in form it is singular, hence "This is the police".

It's the same with, say, "BBC". In British English, one might say "The BBC are launching a new programme" because collective nouns as subjects often take plural verbs (at least in British English), but their news programmes always begin "This is the BBC".

I think "police" is one of those nouns with its own rules-- it doesn't behave like other, more typical collective nouns (most of which allow either singular or plural nouns, at least in British English).

Thanks once again for your encouraging comments!

khin wee said...

Hi Ludwig,
Was just looking at your blog again. I found your comment that a collective noun is only for animate objects interesting. Webster's II: New Riverside University Dictionary defines a collective noun, as "A noun that denotes a collection of persons or THINGS regarded as a unit." The Free Dictionary based on the Random House Dictionary also defines it as "a noun, as herd, jury, or clergy, that appears singular in formal shape but denotes a group of persons or OBJECTS." Similarly Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary defined it as "a noun which describes a group of THINGS or people as a unit". Was wondering where the 'animate' qualification is from. I am thinking of words like a stack of files, a pile of leaves, or a ream of paper. "Stack", "pile" and "ream" are considered collective nouns too, aren't they? Would be interested to hear your comments.

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Hi, Khin Wee

Yes, the term 'collective noun' has different meanings.

The 'objects'/'things' in those dictionary definitions refer a difference sense of 'collective noun' -- quite close to 'classifier' or 'partitive' in some grammar frameworks. The term 'collective noun' may also mean words like 'gaggle' and 'parliament' when referring to geese and owls, for instance.

The sense I have in mind is more relevant to grammar, as it relates directly to the choice of a singular or plural verb following the noun phrase. Only collections of animate beings with powers of volition may generally take either a singular or a plural verb. I haven't checked, but this is a conclusion I reached as I began to understand collective nouns better!


khin wee said...

I see...! :-) Makes sense.