Tuesday July 31, 2012
By FADZILAH AMIN
Which is correct? The family is/are going to Penang? Liverpool is/are seeking trophies? When it comes to groups and teams, the rules get tricky.
HAVE you heard of a flock of geese being called “a gaggle of geese”? “Gaggle” and “flock” are both collective nouns. These are countable nouns which stand for groups of things, plants, animals or people.
The word “gaggle” is especially apt when applied to geese, because its sound is similar to the sounds geese make, and the phrase “a gaggle of geese” is thus said to be onomatopoeic. I know very well the sound of “gaggling”, since my mother lovingly reared three geese after her three children became teenagers.
Two readers, Emily and Zuraida, are not sure whether to use a singular or a plural verb after a collective noun. The collective nouns they mention are “group” and “Cabinet”. The textbook answer is that in British English, we can use either a singular or a plural verb: When the group is mentioned as a unit, a singular verb is used, but when it is mentioned as a collection of individuals, a plural verb is used.
In American English, however, a singular verb is usually used. There are variations to this practice, though.
Emily’s first sentence reads: “A group of scouts (is, are) camping in the forest.” If Emily is writing in British English, her first sentence will read: “A group of scouts are camping in the forest.”
But if she is writing in American English, the sentence is more likely to be: “A group of scouts is camping in the forest.” Below are examples of the use of “group” with a singular verb in an American newspaper, and with a plural verb in a British newspaper:
1. “A group of investors led by Sony has submitted concessions to win European regulatory approval for its US$2.2bil purchase of EMI’s publishing unit.” (New York Times, March 27, 2012)
2. “A group of investors have mounted a concerted campaign against the move claiming to have enough support to block it at next week’s general meeting.”
(telegraph.co.uk, Sept 1, 2011)
I am surprised that Reader’s Digest, a US magazine, chose the plural “have” as the correct verb to use in the sentence “The Cabinet has/have sworn to secrecy.” – as pointed out by Zuraida. “Cabinet” (with a capital C) is not a singular noun, Zuraida, but a collective noun, and a singular verb is usually used after it in American English.
This can be seen, for example in the following caption to a 2002 photo: “The Bush Cabinet discusses the National Energy Policy.” (Environment News Service website); and also the following heading on a website: “President Obama’s Cabinet Meets on Re-entry Issues” (Correctional Education Association National website).
In British English, however, “the Cabinet” is more often used with a plural verb. Here are some examples:
1. “The Cabinet have voiced concern about causing another public uproar, especially after the outcry against the selling off of forests.” (telegraph.co.uk July 19, 2011, about the proposed culling of badgers).
2. “On matters arising DV advised the Board that the Cabinet have agreed Capability Reviews in principle.” (Summary of minutes, Feb 13, 2006, HM Revenue and Customs)
Sometimes, a singular verb is used with “Cabinet” in British English.
The headlines of both guardian.co.uk and the BBC News website on July 23, 2009 used a singular verb to proclaim: “Cabinet meets in Cardiff as Brown unveils rail electrification scheme”, and “Brown’s Cabinet meets in Cardiff” respectively.
The next collective noun I want to consider is “team”, since the London Olympics are on now. Here, the difference between British English and US English usage is very clear. British sports writers almost always use a plural verb after “team”, while US sports writers use a singular verb.
On the BBC Sport website, there is a 2008 photograph of the Great Britain Sailing team at the Beijing Olympics, which “topped the Beijing medals table”. The caption reads: “The GB team was given models of the boats they competed in at the Games.”
In addition, the online Guardian of July 16 this year, carries this headline: “London 2012: Footballing Team GB seek to gain a nation’s affections.” I sighed when I looked at this today, after Brazil so easily defeated GB 2-0 in a friendly at Middlesbrough on Friday July 20.
The Los Angeles Times of July 16 this year, in contrast, uses a singular verb after “team” in the following sentence about the basketball team, the Dodgers: “Magic is still missing from Dodgers games, and the team has let first place slip away.”
In another article on July 19, the newspaper has this sentence: “. . . Dodgers Chairman Mark Walter seems to think the team is merely ‘a few moves’ away from winning their first World Series title since 1988.”
I found it interesting to see how US sports writers abandon the singular verb for the plural when the team they are writing about has a plural name. For example, the LA Times of July 17 this year, has: “The Lakers are patiently working the count, hoping they can belt another ball out of the park.” – the Lakers, of course being the well-known basketball team, LA Lakers. When a team has a singular name, like Philadelphia Union, a Major League soccer team, a singular verb is used after it, as in “Philadelphia has a little extra in extra time, beats Galaxy, 2-1 (LA Times, July 5, 2012).
British sports writers, however, use plural verbs after names of teams, whether the names are singular or plural.
For example, an article in telegraph.co.uk of April 28, 2011 has the following headline: “Paul Robinson will consider future if Blackburn Rovers are relegated from Premier League”.
Also, one of its sentences reads: “Robinson, the former England keeper, has been one of the few Blackburn players to impress this season, and Liverpool are monitoring the 31-year-old as a possible replacement for Pepe Reina…” Blackburn Rovers has a plural name, but Liverpool has a singular name (its full name being Liverpool Football Club), yet both names are followed by plural verbs.
I would like to end with two examples of how “family” as a collective noun is followed by a singular verb in American English and a plural one in British English: “Ernest Bucknew was coming home to attend a funeral for his mother. Now the family is planning another service.” (LA Times, Nov 4, 2003)
“The family are devastated that the circumstances of Mr Mubenga’s death and the people restraining him will not be called to explain their actions in criminal proceedings.” (guardian.co.uk, 17 July 2012)
Fadzilah Amin taught English literature at university, but after retirement started teaching English language. She believes we learn most when trying to teach others. Mind Our English is published once a week on Tuesdays. For comments or inquiries on English usage, please contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org