Sunday, 27 January 2013

Collective Nouns

Winston Churchill demonstrated the absurdity of sticking rigidly to the rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition. "That is something up with which I will not put," he said. And Fowler acknowledged that idiom takes precedence over grammar. Even in 1918, he preferred the grammatically incorrect "It's me" to the pedantic "It is I." And sometimes an infinitive just had to be split.

Perusing the Times Col yesterday, I was forced to re-read the following sentence. It just didn't sound right.

A total of 313 camas bulbs was tucked into the earth during planting at the meadow last week - one for each student at the school.

This is a modern example of following a grammatical rule ad absurdum. The writer has noticed that "total", not "bulbs", is the subject of the sentence, and has therefore used the singular verb. But the "total" wasn't tucked into the earth, the camas bulbs were. In effect, the subject of the sentence is "a total of 313 camas bulbs". The sense is plural, so the verb should be plural.

A total of 313 camas bulbs were tucked into the earth during planting at the meadow last week - one for each student at the school.

In the above example, the sense is so obviously plural, because of the camas bulbs. But what about this sentence?

After the game, the team was enjoying a beer at the pub.

Not a plural noun in sight! But again the sense is plural. The players were enjoying a beer, so the sentence should read:

After the game, the team were enjoying a beer at the pub.

However, if the sense is singular, the verb should be singular, as in the following:

The team was invited to play an exhibition game.

To sum up, "total" and "team", like "crowd", "herd", "congregation", "government", etc., as collective nouns, may be either singular or plural, depending on their context.





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