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Collective thinking

Q: I got these from newspapers: “The elderly couple are charged with counterfeiting” and “A group of Dutch investors are building 25 homes.” Shouldn’t the verbs be “is,” not “are,” since “couple,” “group” and other collective nouns take the singular? I vaguely recall a grammatical rule to that effect.

A: Many words that mean a collection of things – “couple,” “group,” “total,” “number,” “majority,” and so on – can be either singular or plural, depending on whether you mean the group as a whole or the individuals in the group. With all these two-faced words, ask yourself whether you’re talking about the whole or the parts. Sometimes this can be a close judgment call.

Let’s look at “couple” first. Here are two examples from my grammar book Woe Is I: “A couple of tenants own geckos. The couple in 5G owns a family of mongooses.” In the first sentence, you’re talking about two separate tenants who own geckos. In the second, you mean one couple that owns mongooses.

Here’s a hint: If the word in front of a collective noun is “the,” then the noun is usually singular. If the word in front is “a,” especially when the noun is followed by “of,” then it’s usually plural. So you’d say “A couple of defendants are charged with counterfeiting,” but “The elderly couple is charged with counterfeiting.”

The same holds true for “group” and other collective nouns. If you’re talking about the individuals in the group, it’s plural; if you mean the group as a whole, it’s singular. So, you’d say “A group of Dutch investors are building 25 homes,” but “The Dutch investment group is building 25 homes.”

If you’d like to read more about collectives, see the “majority” and “none” items on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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