All for One 

Rosie Right

One of the problems we face when we wish to write or speak correctly is the use of collective nouns. Should they take singular or plural verbs and pronouns?

An example of the problem showed up in the Nov. 9 New York Times. In an article about Gov. Gilmore a source was quoted: "'The White House is going to torture this guy,' said one Republican strategist close to the White House. 'But they're not going to cut him loose.'"

And in the same piece Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., was reported to have said: "I don't know what the White House is thinking. They need to have the flexibility to do what they need to do."

Aside from the personification of the White House (which is comprehensible but a little silly), this shows at least a bit of grammatical confusion in both speakers' syntax. White House here is undoubtedly being used as a collective noun. Singular or plural? By use of a singular verb and a plural pronoun the speakers seem to have straddled the problem.

On a less politically lofty note we sometimes see: The band are coming to play here. They will give us a program of classic rock …

At first glance, it seems that the first sentence is fairly easy to correct. Shouldn't it be The band is …..? But the second sentence gives rise to discussion. Is it incorrect? What pronoun should be in the second sentence? If band is a collective noun, doesn't it always take a singular pronoun? Our Associated Press Stylebook says unequivocally yes: "Nouns that denote a unit take singular verbs and pronouns: class … orchestra." This is the way Style intends to use collective nouns.

In "Working With Words," Brooks and Pinson agree, telling us: "Use the singular form when the noun is being used in the sense of a single group operating together in agreement; use the plural form if the noun is used to name a group operating as individuals or in disagreement."

But Fowler's Modern English Usage (Third Edition) discusses the difference between British and American usage: In British English "it is in order to use either a plural verb or a singular verb after most collective nouns so long as attendant pronouns are made to follow suit. …"

Strict American rules aside, Rosie fears the British have exported their usage to us. The use of they in statements about collective nouns has entered our language and may never be obliterated.

Let Rosie hear from you by telephone (358-0825, ext. 322), letter (1707 Summit Ave., Suite 201, Richmond, Va. 23230), or e-mail repps@styleweekly.com.


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