Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ask The Verb: collective nouns

This in from Philip:
Dear Mr. Verb,
I would like to be clarified about an issue regarding the verb to have. Is it possible to use 'have' when speaking about a country? Ex. Russia have accomplished many important tasks... Australia have beaten New Zealand ... . The apparent contradiction is that a country is both a single entity and a community. But I would like to confirm that it is so, and that it is in fact possible to use 'have' in these situations.

Kind regards,

Ahhhh, finally, a question I can answer even in a hurry.

This is a major difference in national varieties of English, and it's not just to have, but applies to all verbs. The issue is exactly the one you've noted: whether we treat a particular noun as a single entity or a collection of individuals, so have singular or plural verb agreement. In the US, collective nouns tend to be singular; British English speakers treat many such cases as plurals: the team (like for 'Australia', above), the band, the gang, the committee is / are.

On any question of US/UK difference, Separated by a Common Language is the place to turn and Lynneguist has posted about this, here. She notes some variation in US usage, like with jury, but the difference seems pretty robust most of the time.



Ed Keer said...

There are few Americans who treat band names as plural. I discussed this briefly here. And also see Arnold Zwicky on LL.

Mr. Verb said...

Right. I myself actually vary on this point, with a lot of band names. Do you know of Americans who say "the band are here"?


Ellen K. said...

As one of those Americans who tends to say things like "Styx are..."...

"Russia have accomplished many important tasks" when I first read it, sounded wrong. Doesn't seem to me we can use the plural form with a country.

"Australia have beaten New Zealand" on the other hand, sounds fine to me, because I read it and assume we are talking about a sports team, not the country.

Rereading "Russia have accomplished..." with the idea of a national team, it sounds fine to me.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh yeah, I was going to mention that in the post ... I don't know that form at all. It might be some British deal I don't know or don't recall, but it sounds very different from the familiar types.


Ed Keer said...

"The band are here" is pretty bad for me.

A while back I was collecting data from usenet groups on the band names so I could tie the usage to an actual poster and see how often they varied.
This is what I got:
Used a band name as a subject of a sentence 5 times. 3 of those were plural (They Might Be Giants, Hermans Hermits, and The Black Eyed Peas) and all three had plural agreement on the verb. The other 2 were singular nouns (Shonen Knife and Gorn) and they had plural agreement on the verb.

Used a band name as a subject of a sentence twice. Both were plural (Les Thugs and The Minibusses [I can't read my notes on that last one, I think that was it]) and they had plural agreement on the verb.

Used a band name as a subject of a sentence 3 times. One was plural (The Minutemen) with plural verb agreement. The other two were singular nouns (BOC [Blue Oyster Cult] and Shonen Knife). BOC had singular verb agreement and Shonen Knife plural.

I didn't get too far because it was pretty labor-intensive collecting. Maybe I should go back to it.

Ed Keer said...

Oops, it turns out that Gorn mentioned by Phredd in my comment above is not a band name.

And I found these too:
3 band names as subjects of sentences. 2 of them are marked plurals (The Wu Tang Clan and The Minibosses) both with plural verb. The other one is a single noun (Outkast) and also has a plural verb.

Used a band name as a subject of a sentence 4 times. Of those, all of them were singular (Mono, Tool, Dead Can Dance, DCD) and all had singular verb agreement.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, that's very labor intensive for sure. Still, a big corpus would be kind of cool to have, for looking at the cline of how plural band names are. How much, for ex., does ending in /s/, like Styx, promote plural verbs? A name that's directly plural, like Herman's Hermits, probably gets singular rarely. Modest Mouse screams singular to lots of people, probably.

"The band are" yields tons -- not just UK, but NZ and Canada, etc., by the way, even filtering out ones where 'band' isn't actually the subject.

Anonymous said...

You know? I actually find English grammar very difficult because of all these rules.