noun/verb agreement

group singular or plural.jpg

This morning I fielded a query from Neil Mitchell, 3AW, on noun/verb agreement. A minister had said something like ‘the government have made improvements’, and then copped a lot of flak on Twitter.

 The problem arises with collective nouns like team, community and possibly even government. Sometimes the speaker is thinking of the noun as a singular taking a singular verb, and sometimes the speaker has in mind the group of people or items that go to make up the collective, the plurality, and so intuitively moves to a plural verb. The team is playing well. That is the team as a unit. The team are all meeting at the airport. That is a plurality.

 Context usually makes it clear whether the speaker has singular or plural in mind. In the example given above my personal feeling is that the government is a unity and requires a verb in the singular. The government has made improvements reads much more smoothly.

I think because there is a choice to be made, some of us panic and use one or other option in ALL situations and therefore get into occasional trouble. It seems to me that the ABC has made a blanket ruling that collective nouns will always take the singular and so its presenters come up with the occasional jarring sentence. The pair is arriving on Tuesday is strictly speaking correct. Pair is a collective noun. But the sense of plurality is very strong. The pair lines up with such constructions as The two or Both of them which have a plural sense.

 Neil went on to ask ‘Does grammar matter?’ Well I think it does. The ‘rules’ that have been formulated over centuries on grammar and usage make the construction of our texts smooth and mean that readers and listeners can focus on what we want to say rather than on bumps in the surface texture of our communications. A good architect makes a building easy to navigate. A good writer makes communications easy to understand. 

Bad writing means that the message is lost because the reader or listener has had a brain freeze on something that doesn’t seem right to them as a native speaker of the language. Once they focus on the problem in the sentence rather than on the meaning of it, you have lost them.

 In my blog on ambiguous and amibivalent I describe exactly this experience of being totally distracted from the content of a message by a misuse of a word.

 In this situation one person may have singularity in mind and the other may have plurality. Both are correct if the context allows, but it is important to stick to the choice you make throughout the piece you are writing or that reader-distraction element will come crashing through again.

Sue ButlerComment