The Whole or the Parts?

Our daily discourse is sprinkled with collective nouns – words such as faculty, team, committee, and family that are singular in form but plural in implication. This creates a dilemma for careful writers. Is the board opposed to the admission of ten-year-olds or are the board against it? Is the class producing good work or are the class excelling? The answer depends on whether we choose to focus on the group as a whole or on its constituent parts.

Context matters. If the family went their separate ways after the funeral, then it makes no sense to treat it – or, rather, them – as a unit. But if the committee is united in its belief that the current regulations are ineffective, then they – or, rather, it – should be paired with a singular verb. Whatever we decide, it is important to be consistent, avoiding constructions such as “The audience is expected to take their seats before the performance begins.”

Differences in American and British usage represent another wrinkle. On this side of the Atlantic, we gravitate to the singular when using collective nouns, whereas our fellow English-speakers favor the plural, as in, “The government are determined to stay the course.” Another complicating factor can be the presence of a prepositional phrase that modifies the collective noun through the addition of a preposition – in this case, “of”– and an object. To say, “The crowd is restless,” will raise no eyebrows, but to say, “The crowd of teenagers is restless,” may be jarring to some. The latter is correct, however, since it is the subject of the sentence, “crowd,” that governs the verb, not the prepositional phrase, “of teenagers.”

In the midst of March Madness, it seems appropriate to add a final caution. While the collective noun, “team,” can be treated as one body or as a multiplicity of bodies, the names of teams call for plural verbs and pronouns. Although some contend that teams such as the Utah Jazz should be exceptions to this rule, the prevailing practice is to handle them no differently from, say, the Chicago Bulls. Thus, we find this sentence in Sports Illustrated: “The Thunder, thanks largely to Westbrook, are flying higher than their competition and they now must simply hang on, rather than run uphill, for the final three weeks.” If, however, we are referring to the Thunder by the name of their hometown, singular verbs and pronouns are in order, as in, “Oklahoma City is on a roll.” The British, given their predilection for plurals, would say, “Oklahoma City are on a roll,” but then they do not claim E Pluribus Unum as their motto.