May 28, 2009

Language Tips: Collective nouns and verb agreement and pronouns

Posted in collective nouns, collective nouns and pronouns, collective nouns and verb agreement at 6:50 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Collective nouns and verb agreement

I was reviewing a paper this week and came across this:

While studies show that most patients want prognostic information, for example, a significant minority does not.

I have to admit, this gave me pause. Which is correct: ‘significant minority do’ or ‘significant minority does’? ‘A significant do’ sounds better to my ear, but is it right?

Let’s think about those pesky collective nouns, most of which can be either plural or singular. The general rule is: if the people or things represented by the collective noun is a group, you use a singular verb. If they are acting as individuals, you use the plural form. While this seems simple and straightforward, it is not as easy as you might think to discern whether they are acting as a group or as individuals.

In the example above, ‘a minority’ refers to a group of people who don’t want prognostic information. Are they acting as a group? All together, they don’t want information, but does that mean they have ACTED as a group? I don’t think so. People who don’t want information constitute a group; however, they are not acting as a group. If instead of group, you think about them acting in unison, it is, perhaps, easier to decide.

The minority came to the same decision, but they did not do it in unison or as a group. Each individual made the decision for him or herself, and it is just by chance that they all came to the same decision. Thus, the correct wording of the sentence would be this:

While studies show that most patients want prognostic information, for example, a significant minority do not.

So what kind of pronouns should we use in sentences with collective nouns?

While studies show that most patients want prognostic information, for example, a significant minority do not, and their wishes should be honored.

Plural collective noun, plural verb, and plural pronoun. It’s all good. But what if you are using a singular collective noun?

Stay tuned for Tip 2.

Tip 2: Collective nouns and pronouns

There is no problem with agreement when the collective noun is working as a plural, but what happens if it’s singular?

The Rugby team was chosen to represent the university, so it changed into its uniform. (uniforms?)

Yuck. According to standard grammar, the pronoun should agree with the collective noun (and its verb).

So to some, the sentence above is correct. Here’s another example:

My family is coming to visit, and it will fly in from many parts of the country.

Say what? This makes no sense. And common sense tells me that this is incorrect even if my grammar books say otherwise. So I’m willing to fight this one. It seems to me that a collective noun can be both singular and plural in the same sentence. It just depend on how the sentence is written. So I would vote for the following wording:

The Rugby team was chosen to represent the university, so they changed into their uniforms.

My family is coming to visit, and they will fly in from many parts of the country.

Of course you could avoid the conflict altogether by adding the word ‘members’ to the sentences:

The Rugby team members were chosen to represent the university, so they changed into their uniforms.

My family members are coming to visit, and they will fly in from many parts of the country.

But what’s the fun in that?

I think it’s time to make a stand for common sense and clarity. Are you with me?

1 Comment »

  1. Hi, thanks for writing such an informative blog. English is my second language and, even though I believe I speak it well, these details of the language are sometimes difficult to get right and they are even more difficult to find in some reference.

    I don’t know whether “common sense and clarity” are universal. To me, it would make more sense to make sure that the “rules” of the language are unambiguous, as that makes it easier to learn the language properly.

    The difference of opinion, with respect to this post, comes from my native language, Croatian, where “family” is a singular and as such is always followed by a singular noun. It indicates a collection of individuals, but you understand that from the content of the word, not the form of the sentence; similarly for minority.

    But then again, if everything was the same, it would just be the same language, and where’s the fun in that?


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