Living in a Multilingual World
A recent exchange with an editor on Medium made me ponder over the rarities we often find in the English language. I had just penned an essay on how my decades-long love affair with the British rock and pop band Queen had started. In one section of my post I had used the plural when talking about the group. The editor asked me politely if I had noticed that I had used the plural instead of the singular. I replied by saying that the plural was correct and asked her to leave the original text intact.
We, English language teachers, go out of our way to explain to students how the third-person singular works. Verb conjugations in other languages are not as simple and at the same time confusing as in English. Take the regular verb sing. I sing, you sing, they sing, we sing, but he/she/it? Sings. Sigh.
This is the reason why many learners flip when confronted with collective nouns. As per The Guardian’s Book of English Language, these are “nouns such as committee, family, government, jury and squad”. They take a singular verb when thought of as a single unit, but they turn plural when seen as a collection of individuals.
That is why we can say that “Queen were hard to box in”, or that with the new talent coming into the first team, “Chelsea are back amongst the elite of the English Premier League” (as a fan I wish this were true, but I’m not holding my breath).
The Guardian offers four clear examples of how to use collective nouns.
The committee gave its unanimous approval to the plans. (singular)
The committee enjoyed biscuits with their teas. (plural)
The family can trace its history back to the middle ages. (singular)
The family were sitting down, scratching their heads. (plural)
Funnily enough, both Word and Google docs highlight either the collective noun or the verb (when in plural) in blue, signalling that an error has been made. I think that someone should have a word with Bill, Larry, and Sergey. Language can never be boxed in. Just like Queen never were.