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06/11/01: Collective Nouns

Hats off to Patrick, a subscriber who works for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. He spotted an unintentional error in last week's tip review.

Sentence 10 reads, "The committee plans to award the grant yearly to whoever needs it most, and they chose my colleagues and me as the first recipients." Patrick correctly pointed out that the plural pronoun they does not agree with its antecedent, the singular noun committee.

Committee is a collective noun, just like jury, flock, herd, class, choir, team, family, and other words that refer to a single unit consisting of more than one person or thing. In American English (British English differs on this issue, as it does on many others), collective nouns can be either singular or plural, depending on how the group is being spoken of in the sentence.

If, for example, the committee is acting in unison, as it is in our sample sentence from last week's test, then we treat it as a singular noun and use a singular verb and pronoun:

The committee PLANS [singular verb] to award the grant yearly to whoever needs it most, and IT [singular pronoun] chose my colleagues and me as the first recipients.

The problem with this revision, though, is that now we have an ambiguous pronoun reference: we do not know if the second it refers to the committee or to the grant. The sentence needs to be rewritten so that each pronoun points clearly to its antecedent. A better revision, then, might be this sentence:

The committee plans to award the grant yearly to the applicants who have demonstrated the greatest need, and my colleagues and I are the first recipients.

Sometimes the members of a group are not acting collectively but individually. In such cases, it would be illogical to refer to the collective noun as a singular. Here are two examples:

Illogical: The choir WAS measured for ITS new robes.
Logical: The choir WERE measured for THEIR new robes.
[Each member must be measured individually, not the group as a whole.]

Illogical: The team HAS ITS mothers wash ITS uniforms after each game.
Logical: The team HAVE THEIR mothers wash THEIR uniforms after each game.
[Each player acts individually to have his or her own uniform washed; the team is not acting as a single unit.]

In each case, the logical choice sounds wrong to many people even though it is correct. Often, then, we would add a plural noun after the collective noun in order to make the sentence sound better:

The choir MEMBERS were measured for their new robes.
The team PLAYERS have their mothers wash their uniforms after each game.

TEST YOURSELF: Which of the two words or phrases in parentheses is the better choice in the following sentences ? (The answers are below.)

1. The tour group (is / are) arguing among (itself / themselves) about where to eat dinner.
2. The tour group (is / are) going to spend (its / their) first night in Paris.
3. The class (has / have) been told to put down (its / their) pencils when (it has / they have) finished the exam.
4. The class (is / are) working on (its / their) project for the school science fair.

ANSWERS:

1. are, themselves (or "The TOURISTS are arguing among themselves . . . .")
2. is, its
3. have, their, they have (or "The class PARTICIPANTS have been told . . . ." or "The STUDENTS have been told . . . .")
4. is, its


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