ATGV: Collective Singular Nouns

This is a really good question.  It came to me from reader Bailee?

Dear Kate,
 
There is a subject I am really hoping you could cover for me on your blog, since I’m sure you would do a better job than I would. The topic is singular collective nouns.  I am driven to the point of madness every morning when I listen to my local rock station, because the DJ insists on referring to bands whose names would be a singular collective noun in a plural sense.  For example, she recently said, “Radiohead are releasing a new album.”  Radiohead is a group, and “group” is a singular collective noun. Thus, it should be, “Radiohead is releasing a new album.” She does this all the time, and I am always thinking about writing a letter to her, but I’m sure I wouldn’t explain it very well.  However, I think you would probably do great.
 
Forgive me for any grammar errors in my email, as I’m only a novice grammar Nazi. I hope to hear from you soon.
 
Bailee

Wow.

This is tough.

Let’s start with an example.  The word band can be used as a singular collective noun.  Let’s say, for example, that you had plans to see your favorite band in concert.

  1. Singular: My favorite band is in town, so I’m going to see it.
  2. Plural: My favorite band are in town, so I’m going to see them.

Neither of those sound right to me, even though they seem to be grammatically correct.

I’m going to turn to the fabulous and useful Language Log.  Here is what the writers had to say on the subject:

Like most Americans, I prefer singular verb agreement for collective nouns like family and committee, unless the meaning of the phrase emphasizes semantic multiplicity, as in “My family all live in North America”. When the meaning is neutral or emphasizes unity, I strongly prefer the singular: “My family is gathering in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving”. However, I can’t imagine writing or saying “#My family is gathering in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, and I’m preparing a traditional Thanksgiving meal for it.” The problem is not that the sentence is ungrammatical, but rather that it doesn’t say what I mean. I prepare the meal for them, not for it.

So, would I say that Pink Floyd is appearing in concert?  Or that Pink Floyd are appearing in concert?

Dear lord.  I think I would say either.  WHAT does that MEAN?!?!

Click here to read the rest of the Language Log’s analysis.  Seeing all those research notes makes me shudder.  It brings back traumatic memories of the 30-page research paper I had to write for my “Understanding the Sacred in Literature” class at Fairfield.

I’ll let them handle the heavy research.

In conclusion, I think that being able to say that your favorite band is in town and you’re going to see them has become so accepted in our language that it has become reality.

As for bands, Bailee, I wish I could answer your question better.  I don’t see anything wrong with saying Radiohead are any more than Radiohead is.

For now, you might want to hold off on that letter to the station.  :-/

And, just because:

DAVID COOK!

YES!!!!!  GO, COOKIE!!!!!  This is the first time that my favorite contestant has won American Idol, so I’m very excited!!  (I haven’t had luck in the past with Clay, Constantine, Elliott and Sanjaya…shut up!!)

Thanks, Bailee.

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19 responses to “ATGV: Collective Singular Nouns

  1. Finally, a rocker wins Idol. Bo got close and Chris missed, but Mr. Cook came through. He seems like a genuinely nice person and has charisma.

    I hope he can put out a good album.

  2. Oh man… My first editing job was working for a music magazine. I had to deal with this issue constantly.

    The boss was a serious grammar nazi, and he hammered this into my head–bands are treated as a singular entity unless the writer is specifically discussing the members of the band.

    So, it’d be: “Metallica sucks these days,” rather than “Metallica suck these days.” Unless, of course, you go with, “The members of Metallica suck these days.”

    And, instead of referring to the band as a “they” or a “them,” we’d go with “it,” “the band” or “the group.”

    The big exception to this rule is a band like The Ramones. In a case like this, it’s kind of dumb and super weird to refer to the band as a singular. “The Ramones was a great band.” That just sounds kooky, so we’d always go with “The Ramones were a great band.”

  3. I think you should have put a note in this post to your England T-shirt post. I think that would put in perspective which English speakers are associated with this sort of speaking.

  4. Dan — I just read that Blake Lewis wrote 12 of the 13 songs on his album and he had the first 19 Entertainment album with creative control. Let’s hope that holds true for David Cook.

    Erik, this is interesting stuff. If, instead of saying, “Pink Floyd’s best album is Dark Side of the Moon,” you said, “Its best album is Dark Side of the Moon,” that sounds like a world of wrong.

    Strange.

    Also — dlipkin, you’re up pretty early, assuming you’re still in California, of course!

  5. Erik:

    Yes, that’s it. That makes sense to me.

  6. Just call me Joe

    Off thread, but there is a good picture with this story on Wonkette today.

    GOTTA GET EDUMACATED: An ABC News poll has found that 16% of U.S. science teachers are Creationists, and 12.5% teach it as a “valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species.” In other words, 87.5% of science teachers better shape up if they want any shot at Heaven. [ABC News]

    http://wonkette.com/

  7. Alexa Moutevelis

    What about “media?” I hate hearing “The media are…” but apparently this is correct.

  8. “Media” is plural in the sense of mass communication. I believe, although I could be incorrect, that medium is singluar.

  9. Yep, Ellie, you are correct. Media is the plural of medium. Think about artists: “The medium I used for this piece was acrylics.” “The media used in the piece are clay, bronze and semiprecious stones.”

    I can’t imagine when anyone would use the term “medium” when talking about a single member of the media. Can any of you think of an example of that?

  10. Kate, yes, that is the way we handled such situations. Generally speaking, I’d try to avoid awkwardness by writing something like, “One of Pink Floyd’s late-’70s efforts, The Dark Side of the Moon, is generally considered its best album.” For some reason, this doesn’t sound wrong to me, but that’s probably due to the aforementioned head-hammering boss and his grammatical fascism.

  11. I agree with Erik’s first comment. Is referring to a band really any different from referring to another group composed of multiple members?

    For example, “The New York Philharmonic Orchestra is traveling to North Korea. The orchestra has also recently released an album.”

    Maybe the reason for felt awkwardness is that with a band, the number of members is small, and we think of the personalities of the members as inherent to the nature of the group. With a large group (e.g., Congress, an orchestra), the group becomes its own identity and it doesn’t matter as much who the members are.

  12. I can’t imagine when anyone would use the term “medium” when talking about a single member of the media. Can any of you think of an example of that?

    … when referring to a reporter from the Psychic News Network? ;-)

  13. Touche, Lee. :-)

  14. Comedian Ernie Kovacs wrote, in dictionary format, “”Television: A medium. So called because it is neither rare nor well done.”

  15. Pingback: grammar collective nouns

  16. “Neither of those sound right to me, even though they seem to be grammatically correct.”

    I would have written “neither of those SOUNDS”, as neither is singular in number. Thoughts?

  17. The British always seem to use the plural for single collective nouns. When I first moved to the UK it grated on me every time a commercial said something like, “Microsoft have released a new product.”

  18. A band’s name is a title representing multiple members, just as a book’s title represents multiple words. But will you be seeing the band itself or will you be seeing the members of the band? Note that “the band itself” does not sound awkward at all.

    I feel that “them” is simply lacking an implicit antecedent.

  19. Great article! I had to stop watching MythBusters after a couple of episodes in which the narrator treated “team” as a plural noun no less than 10 times (e.g. “The team travel back to the drawing board.”). ARGH! That still drives me crazy.

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