Tag Archives: collective nouns

Monday Morning Grammar: Collective Nouns

Singular nouns beget singular verbs, and plural nouns beget plural verbs. Simple, right? Well, not always. Sometimes even the pros at the New York Times screw up subject-verb agreement.

With the NFL kicking off this weekend, it’s a good time to discuss collective nouns. Consider these two examples:

My favorite team plays the Packers tonight at Lambeau Field.
The Vikings play the Packers tonight at Lambeau Field.

A collective noun describes a group. Examples of collective nouns include audience, band, board, bourgeoisie, class, committee, couple, crowd, faculty, family, herd, jury, majority, orchestra, team and troop.

Usually collective nouns such as these are acting as a unit and so take a singular noun:

The audience applauds for good performances.
The audience stamp their feet for great performances.

In the first example, the audience is acting as a unit and thus takes a singular verb. In the second, the audience are acting as individuals—an audience doesn’t have feet to stamp, but individual members of an audience do—so this subject takes a plural verb.

Microsoft Word doesn’t like the audience stamp, though, and is underlining the offensive phrasing with a green squiggly mark as I write this. To avoid such awkward sentence construction, try rephrasing:

The audience members stamp their feet for great performances.

Here’s another example:

The couple makes dinner every night.
The couple argue over what to make for dinner every night.

In the first example, the couple is acting as a unit; in the second, the individual members of the couple are acting individually.

AP makes an exception to this rule, however, when it comes to band and team names, which always take a plural verb:

The Vikings play the Packers tonight at Lambeau Field.
The Oklahoma City Thunder debut during the 2008-2009 NBA season.
Radiohead frequently play the Hollywood Bowl when their tour comes to Los Angeles.

When it comes to band and team names, however, some prefer to choose singular or plural based on how the name sounds:

The Vikings play the Packers tonight at Lambeau Field.
The Oklahoma City Thunder debuts during the 2008-2009 NBA season.
Radiohead frequently plays the Hollywood Bowl when their tour comes to Los Angeles.

As always, if you’re writing for a magazine or newspaper, use AP’s guidelines. The most important thing is to pick a style and a apply it consistently.

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Fogarty, Mignon, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008.

Goldstein, Norm, ed. The Associated Press Stylebook. 42nd ed. New York: Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2007.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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