Category Archives: Ask the Grammar Vandal

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.


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:


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.


AGTV: Talking Tenses

This is a really great grammar question that I received from reader Linda.  Here it is:

Hello, Kate,

My friend and I disagree over the use of “went” in the following excerpt. The speaker is talking to a person in Milwaukee.

“So, I was hoping that, if you had the time and were willing, you would show me around the city if I went back there for a few days? Or is that a lot to ask? I know I would be in good company,” he added hastily.

To my ear, it sounds better to say “if I came back there for a few days,” since the person he’s talking to is already there. Is one or the other correct? Or does it matter?



When I read this, I thought back to high school French class.  Whenever we worked on our “si clauses” (the grammar to use with “if, then” statements), they would always say, “Paris, France Is Cool.”

If Present, then Future.

If Imperfect, then Conditional.

If she does meth, then she will scratch her face away.

If she did meth, then she would scratch her face away.

(And you wonder where they get the expression “methface.”)

Oh, man.  I just reread the question and I’m realizing that what I just wrote was completely irrelevant.  I thought this was going to be about “if, then” statements.  Okay.  Apologies.  I’m going to leave it up, because I think it’s good grammar material.

Both the words came and went are the past forms of the verb.  Because of that, I think either word could be used.  I’m assuming that the character originally came from that city.  You could also use returned if the character is originally from there.

It doesn’t matter where the person to whom the character is speaking is currently located.  You could come or you could go.  It’s up to you.  However, because you’re using the word back, I think that the word went sounds better than came.  If he originally came from the area, you could also use returned and drop the word back.

So, I was hoping that, if you had the time and were willing, you would show me around the city if I returned there for a few days?


Thanks, Linda — and thanks especially for using the comma after the word Hello!  I love to see that!

ATGV: Defining fruits (and many other things)

I received the following email late last night and thought that it would make a great discussion:

Kate: Could you please enlighten us language teachers about the following sentences- which is/ are correct usage? And why?
1. My favorite fruit is apples.
2. My favorite fruit is an apple
3. My favorite fruit is the apple.
4. My favorite fruit is apple.
I tend to think 1, 3 and 4 are correct. What do you think?
Thanks for your help,
E Trottier

What a great question!  Ordinarily, I would go to look it up in my books and online, but I have no idea even where to start.

If you’ve read the Globe feature on me, you know that I mostly go by instinct.  In this situation, I think that 1 and 3 are correct.  The second option would be correct if you were referring to your one favorite piece of fruit in the world.  (My favorite fruit is an apple that came from a farm in the Berkshires, and it had a red and green swirl on it that kind of looked like Drew Carey when you squinted really hard at it.)

What do you think?


ATGV: Single or Plural?

Good morning, Kate. I am reviewing a document for a co-worker and need some help with a sentence.

Tailgating, as well as making rude gestures, passing on the shoulder, pulling into a parking space someone else is waiting for, and failing to yield to merging traffic, is considered an example of an aggressive act.


Tailgating, as well as making rude gestures, passing on the shoulder, pulling into a parking space someone else is waiting for, and failing to yield to merging traffic, are considered examples of aggressive acts.

Which is correct? I have checked several resources and haven’t found an example that is similar.


Wow. I’ve been saying these to myself since this afternoon, and they both sound wrong to me.

Perhaps it’s because whenever I use the phrase as well as, I usually have plurals on either side. The Danes as well as the Swedes dwell in countries that I hope to visit extremely soon. It doesn’t sound perfect, but it’s functional.

If I were writing this, Julia, I would strike as well as and change it to in addition to. This would make tailgating the focus of the sentence.

Tailgating, in addition to making rude gestures, passing on the shoulder, pulling into a parking space someone else is waiting for, and failing to yield to merging traffic, is considered an example of an aggressive act.

You know what? I think I like it better with dashes.

Tailgating — in addition to making rude gestures, passing on the shoulder, pulling into a parking space someone else is waiting for, and failing to yield to merging traffic — is considered an example of an aggressive act.

There we go.

ATGV: "Hip Hop" or "Hip-Hop"?

I received the following question from a beloved reader:

Hi, Grammar Vandal,

First, let me say that I’m delighted to share the same city with you. Of any city in the US, Boston should be putting its best linguistic foot forward. And when it doesn’t, it deserves a little corrective vandalism.

So, here’s my question: “Hip Hop” – I know that it is currently correct to use it both withand without a hyphen, but what about when it’s a modifier? Does it behave like any other compound? E.g., he was well known vs. he was a well-known person. So, “I’ve been doing hip hop for a decade now…”vs “The hip-hop scene has changed a lot since Tupac was shot.”

Actually, I guess we could pose the question of capitalization aswell, although since rock, disco and reggae don’t get special capitalization status as a music genre, I don’t think hip hop should either.

Any thoughts or suggested web references? I have the Chicago Manual of Style, AP Style Guide and US Govt Manual of Style on hand here as physical resources but none of them seem to care much about hip hop.

Many thanks for your advice!

MollyMac in Brookline

You know, I thought that this would be so easy. I thought that all it would take would be a few quick searches to find an answer. Not so much.

Like MollyMac said, neither hip hop nor hip-hop are listed in any of the aformentioned guides. Because of this, I’m going to do a survey of modern music information sources and tally what they use.

Here we go:

Hip Hop: NONE!

Rolling Stone


To add in a few literary sources, I checked out the American Heritage Dictionary and Random House Unabridged Dictionary. Both use hip-hop.

MollyMac, I think you have your answer! This is pretty interesting. I always preferred to use hip-hop, and I’m glad that it’s the default of so many major music sources.

Thanks, MollyMac. I particularly love the comma you used after “Hi.”

ATGV: Farther vs. Further

I’ve had three people ask me about this so far. Here are abridged versions of their emails to me:

Other peeves of mine include complete confusion of “farther ” and “further,” and, of course, the complete abandonment of “who” and “whom,” especially among news commentators and other cultural icons.

If you locate [10 items or fewer signs in supermarkets] I would appreciate it if you would share it with your audience. If I see it, I guess I will take a photo with my cell phone and send it to you. Despite the “what are you nuts?” glares I will receive from fellow customers, I will do almost anything to further your worthy cause! Speaking of further and farther…must be a handful of those examples around, too!

I’m so heartened to see your blog evidence that good grammar is more than just appropriate punctuation, it’s also about appropriate syntax and vocabulary. So, a question that’s been bounced around our offices and homes of late : Further and farther.When at school it used to be that farther was used to mean distance and further was used to mean something that was metaphorically removed or distant…
Of late, “further” seems to be used for everything. Should “farther” be used more, or at all, or has language evolved such that “further” is applied generically to all such situations?
–Shiny Happy Person

To be as concise as possible, farther refers to literal distance, while further refers to metaphorical distance.

From the AP Stylebook:

Farther refers to physical distance: He walked farther into the woods. Further
refers to an extension of time or degree: She will look further into the

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

Since the Middle English period many writers have used farther and further
interchangeably. According to a relatively recent rule, however, farther should
be reserved for physical distance and further for nonphysical, metaphorical
advancement….In many cases, however, the distinction is not easy to

If we speak of a statement that is far from the truth, for example, we
should also allow the use of farther in a sentence such as Nothing could be
farther from the truth
. But Nothing could be further from the truth is so well
established as to seem a fixed expression.

Now, that doesn’t seem to be correct to me. Nothing could be further from the truth is, in fact, correct. It isn’t physical distance that separates anything from the truth! Nothing could be farther from the truth is as incorrect as it is awkward. The first sentence was right all along; I don’t know why the dictionary authors wrote what they wrote. Nobody should ever use farther in that sentence.

Interestingly, this is what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say:

There is no historical basis for the notion that farther is of physical distance
and further of degree or quality.


Time for examples!

As I watched episode after episode of MTV’s Next with my roommate, Omni, I felt myself getting further away from intellectual stimulation.

Further into the date, Shane offered Guy #3 a second date and he took the money to go on a date with Guy #5 instead!

The more chocolates that annoying guy crushed while blindfolded and dressed like Cupid, the further he got from being able to find the chocolate-covered cherry.

As that douchebag of a guy took his date farther from the Next Bus and farther into the golf course, she went further into her dickmatization and actually accepted a date with him.

And that’s that!

(I’ve never watched Next before. Basically, it’s a dating show where a guy or girl gets to date up to five people and yells “Next!” when he or she is done with the person. I felt like I was losing brain cells and becoming more promiscuous just from watching the damn show! That being said, you do get sucked in, and it was a fun way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Remember when MTV used to play music videos?)

Thanks, Herb, Linda and Shiny Happy Person.

ATGV: Between vs. Among


I heard you on NPR – you’ve chosen a good mission!!!

Would you please write about the difference between ‘between’ and ‘among?’ I never hear ‘among’ anymore. People (newspapers, TV and even NPR) just use ‘between.’ The meeting was between Russia, China and Japan. He decided to share it between Connie, Ronnie and Vonnie. I thought between was for 2 only and among covered 3 or more. Am I wrong? Tell me no.

Thanks for your efforts. It is nice to know someone else grinds teeth when the lovely English language is abused and neglected and treated loosely. I guess misery loves company!


Judith, thank you for your question!

The answer: generally, you use between for two and among for three or more.

I’ve wondered about this rule on a few occasions. I’ve decided to check a few sources: the AP Stylebook (of course), the Oxford English Dictionary, the Columbia Guide to Standard English, and the University of San Francisco style (which is a combination of AP and Chicago styles).

1) However, what do you say when there’s a war among three countries?
–The war was between Angola, Norway and Papua New Guinea.
–From what I’ve read, it’s okay to use between if there is fighting between Angola and Norway, Norway and Papua New Guinea, and Papua New Guinea and Angola. You must be able to use between with any two choices.
–It’s the same if it were a horse race.
–They’re coming to the finish line, and it’s between Cheery Bosom, Superman’s Flying Low and Sand in my Pants!

2) It’s okay to use between if one or both of the sides consist of multiple elements:
–World War II was between the Allies and Germany, Italy and Japan.

3) If we’re talking about sharing one substance, among is standard:
–He divided the pasta among the four hungry students.

I think Kenneth G. Wilson of The Columbia Guide to Standard English says it best:

Between can be used of as many items as you like if the relationship is one-to-one, however much it may be repeated with different partners: Economic relations between Great Britain, France, and Italy [or between some members of the EEC] are tense at present. Among works with any plural number above two: Among the milling ballplayers, fans, and reporters were the four umpires.

Among the blog enthusiasts of the world, I think mine are the best. 🙂

Overall, always use between for two. Use among for three or greater, unless it sounds wrong to you. In that case, use between if you could theoretically use between with any two elements in your sentence.