February 05, 2005

Collective nouns with singular verbs and plural pronouns

Some people at alt.usage.english recently discussed my post on the SAT's "sentence error" questions, dealing with the example

After (A) hours of futile debate, the committee has decided to postpone (B) further discussion of the resolution (C) until their (D) next meeting. No error (E)

R H Draney argued that

"the committee" may be either singular or plural according to the customs of one's land...but the die is cast before letter (D) when the writer chooses "has decided"; this tells us that the sentence lives in a world where collective nouns are grammatically singular, and "their next meeting" conflicts with this information...the correct response must therefore be (D)....

This plausible-sounding perspective agrees with the American Heritage Dictionary's usage note on collective nouns:

In American usage, a collective noun takes a singular verb when it refers to the collection considered as a whole, as in The family was united on this question. The enemy is suing for peace. It takes a plural verb when it refers to the members of the group considered as individuals, as in My family are always fighting among themselves. The enemy were showing up in groups of three or four to turn in their weapons. In British usage, however, collective nouns are more often treated as plurals: The government have not announced a new policy. The team are playing in the test matches next week. A collective noun should not be treated as both singular and plural in the same construction; thus The family is determined to press its (not their) claim. Among the common collective nouns are committee, clergy, company, enemy, group, family, flock, public, and team. [emphasis added]

However, I'm going to venture to disagree with both Draney and the AHD, at least in part, although I share most of their analytic assumptions.

Like most Americans, I prefer singular verb agreement for collective nouns like family and committee, unless the meaning of the phrase emphasizes semantic multiplicity, as in "My family all live in North America". When the meaning is neutral or emphasizes unity, I strongly prefer the singular: "My family is gathering in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving". However, I can't imagine writing or saying "#My family is gathering in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, and I'm preparing a traditional Thanksgiving meal for it." The problem is not that the sentence is ungrammatical, but rather that it doesn't say what I mean. I prepare the meal for them, not for it. I object strongly to a "rule" that gives me only two choices:

#My family is gathering in Philadelphia, and I'm preparing a Thanksgiving feast for it.
#My family are gathering in Philadelphia, and I'm preparing a Thanksgiving feast for them.

Neither of these sentences expresses what I would have wanted to say last November, which was:

My family is gathering in Philadelphia, and I'm preparing a Thanksgiving feast for them.

If someone's logically-concocted "rule" -- an external critique in Glen Whitman's Hayekian terminology -- tries to stop me from saying what I mean in this case, I perceive it not as a principle to be learned and obeyed, but as a tyranny to be resisted. I might choose to sidestep the issue by writing "The members of my family are...", but that is a cowardly if convenient accommodation.

A bit of web search suggests that most Americans share my patterns of usage, while also offering some small comfort to Draney and the AHD.

The contingency table for the various instantiations of the pattern "family is|are * to * its|their" suggests that the web prefers is to are and their to its, and also that there is an interaction in the direction the AHD recommends:

  to * its to * their
family is *
family are *

I suspect, however, that the interaction is not mainly due to effective belief in a "rule" about consistency of syntactic treatment, but rather is a side effect of consistency of semantic intent. And in any case, mixed-number cases are commoner than consistent-number cases, 5,135 to 4,382.

The counts are from Google, so caveat lector. Here are the patterns so that you can check the hits yourself (and of course I do know that some of the hits in each category are irrelevant to the question):
1. {"family is * to * its"}
2. {"family is * to * their"}
3. {"family are * to * its"}
4. {"family are * to * their"}

The typically American pattern of singular verb and plural pronoun (case 2) is commoner than any of the other three cases, and many of the examples strike me as unexceptionable:

This family is able to reduce their college expenses by over $85,000 dollars.
Food grows scarce, and the family is forced to slaughter their ox and eat it.
This family is thrilled to have their baby girl home from Kazakhstan!
Summer rolls around, and a working family is able to get their child into a decent all-day summer camp program.

It's plausible to argue that verb-agreement number and pronoun number should logically be the same within a given passage (the AHD says "construction", but this seems to be a matter of gradient salience, not grammatical principle). However, Norma Loquendi doesn't agree with this notion, no matter how logical it may seem, and my intuitive reactions are with her. In such a case, we have a choice: logic or custom? elite theory or common practice? rational reconstruction or spontaneous order? I'll stand with Hayek in siding with the spontaneous order of common practice, whose logic is usually more subtle and effective than some armchair expert's superficial rationalization.

Counts from contexts where the syntax is reasonably well constrained ("so my family is|are..." etc.) suggest that family takes singular verb agreement about 90% of the time, ceteris paribus:

is all are all was all were all
so my family __
so your family __
so her family __
so his family __
so our family __
so their family __
so the family __

*102 copies of a movie review ignored.

Inspection of the hits makes it clear that the British/American divide is an important factor. As a result, if we limited the counts to American pages, the preference for singular verb agreement would be even stronger. But the effect of adding "all" at the end -- doubling or tripling the proportion of plural agreement -- does show that semantic factors are also relevant, just as the AHD's usage note says.

I haven't found a satisfactory way to estimate Americans' quantitative preference for plural pronoun usage in reference to collective nouns like committee and family, but I suspect it's almost as strong as our (more than) nine to one preference for singular verb agreement in the same cases. These two strong preferences can be seen not only in everyday discourse, but in essays, novels and poems by respected authors. Here are a few relevant samples of poetry from LION (emphasis added throughout):

They don't play good soldiers
unless at attention or lying dead, rusting
behind his grandfather's tool shed. No wonder
everyone gave them up. Behind the glass
the peanuts have turned green.
A few green pennies jam the works.
He thinks of the family joke, his uncle's fortune.

One holds an ant colony. Shined up
it's worth a nickle to see. His family
crowds into the tool shed
, amazed
at the thousands of ants moving under the glass.
They wonder how he has done it.
It's a secret, he says. You have to train them.
He bangs on the glass and they all go crazy.

Bensko, John, 1949-: Uncle Robert's Peanut Vending Machines [from Green Soldiers (1981), Yale University Press]

This poem is not improved by changing crowds to crowd; and changing "they wonder how he has done it" to "it wonders how he has done it" is a disaster.

What can I say of the house now that the house
is over---what can I sing of the bridge
now that my family is on the other side,
where the birds finally tune the shadows
with their songs, and the lights need only
brighten for a moment, for there is no darkness
in their house
, only light, the causes of
light, the moment of memory when the
past pronounces the future, "so long," the leaves
wave, the sea waits for someone and someone
else ...

Burkard, Michael, 1947-: The Moment of Memory [from Fictions from the Self (1988), Norton]

Again, changing is to are after family would be unidiomatic at best, while writing "there is no darkness/in its house" would be bizarrely dehumanizing.

But now, once more, and face to face,
In happiness we meet, wife;
And through your care and God's sweet grace
Our family is complete, wife!
From valleys, mountains, snows, and sands,
From city streets and forest lands,
They come to clasp your yearning hands.

Carleton, Will, 1845-1912: The Festival of Family Reunion. [from City Festivals (1892)] Scene III, lines 56-62.

In this case, "our family are complete" would be nonsense, and "from city streets and forest lands/it comes to clasp your yearning hands" turns the poem into something out of H.P. Lovecraft. That might be an improvement, but it's hardly what the author had in mind.

There are several thousand other examples in LION's archive of American poetry. If there's someone out there who hasn't had enough of this yet, please feel free to classify and count them. For my part, I'm done.

I'll give Walt Whitman the last word. He never used family in the relevant kind of structure, but here's his take on group:

On my northwest coast in the midst of the night, a fishermen's group stands watching;
Out on the lake, that expands before them, others are spearing salmon;
The canoe, a dim shadowy thing, moves across the black water,
Bearing a Torch a-blaze at the prow.

Whitman, Walt, 1819-1892: THE TORCH. [from Leaves of grass (1872)]

You could argue that them refers to fishermen rather than fishermen's group -- though that is a violation of the equally spurious "genitive antecedent" prohibition -- but in my opinion, the passage is fine as it stands, and remains fine if "fishermen's" is changed to "fisherman's", or omitted altogether.

[Update: I originally wrote alt.usage.english instead of alt.english.usage -- or was it the other way around? Anyhow, I think it's correct now, thanks to Benjamin Zimmer, who wrote:

Just a heads-up on your blog entry, "Collective nouns with singular verbs and plural pronouns"... You say, "In a discussion on alt.english.usage...", when in fact the newsgroup in question is alt.usage.english. Those are actually two different newsgroups, and the regulars take the distinction between AUE and AEU quite seriously (the narcissism of small differences and all that).


[Update #2: Abnu at Wordlab writes:

I wrestled with this problem earlier this week when writing a post titled "Dumb and Dummer" over at Wordlab. I settled on the "ungrammatical" construction:

"...the board of directors of the academy thinks they're smarter..."

knowing full well that the "rules" gave me only two choices:

"...the board of directors of the academy thinks it's smarter..."
"...the board of directors of the academy think they're smarter..."

For the reasons argued in your post, I considered this a "tyranny to be resisted" myself, and used the contrarian construction that expessed my meaning. I have to admit, the whole thing gave me pause at the time, and I haven't slept well since. If only I'd had the benefit of your analicious.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 5, 2005 12:30 AM