Grammar Usage

Collective intelligence

Q: Every day I hear American commentators use singular collective nouns as plurals. For example, “the family have.” I regularly hear this on the BBC, of course, but now it’s on NPR too. What is technically correct?

A: We’re surprised to hear that this British convention for dealing with collective nouns has spilled over into American broadcasting.

We wrote a blog entry a while back about the differences between American English and the British variety, and touched on the different ways the two Englishes treat collective nouns:

“In Britain,” we wrote, “many collective nouns are plural, such as the names of companies, sports teams, government bodies (‘Mobil invite you to join them’). In the US, the preference is for the singular (‘Mobil invites you to join it’).”

Correctness isn’t an issue here, as we wrote earlier this year in a posting about so-called “notional” (as opposed to formal) agreement.

“Reasonable people,” we said, “can disagree on notional versus formal agreement. Take the case of institutional and collective nouns and how they’re perceived in the US as opposed to the UK.

“The American practice is to go with formal agreement: ‘the commission is’ … ‘General Electric was.’ The British practice is to go with notional agreement: ‘the commission are’ … ‘General Electric were.’

“In the US, the institution is regarded as a singular entity; in the UK, it’s regarded as a collection of individuals.”

That said, we have to emphasize that the tradition in American English is to treat organizations as singular nouns and to give them singular verbs. We say, “The family is waiting,” not “The family are waiting.”

An American who uses the British convention instead is going to sound like a pretentious copycat. Why not go all the way and say “lift” instead of “elevator” and “flat” instead of “apartment”?

Affected? Rather!

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