Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Yeah. What They Said.

The Wall Street Journal, too, is explaining to readers the world beyond Subject-Verb Agreement 101. I offer the following entry from that paper's Style & Substance newsletter, in case it clarifies something that I failed to drive home in all my exasperated entries on the "a bunch of us are going to the mall" topic. (One bit of dissent: I agree that the decision can be subjective, but this isn't among the subjects on which I advise avoiding the issue altogether.)

One article said a group of analysts were gathered. ... Another said the panel of physicians have met. ... A headline said A new wave of philanthropists are rushing to spend their money before they die.

Shouldn’t the verbs in these examples have been singular, reflecting the subjects of the clauses, a reader asks?

Group and panel in these cases are collective nouns, with intervening plural nouns before the verbs, and the general rule is to use a singular verb if the idea of oneness predominates and a plural verb if the idea of several or many predominates. As we have observed before, the decision is usually subjective, and the easiest solution often is to change the sentence: Physicians on a panel have met. ...

The stylebook’s entry on collective nouns advises that with words such as variety, number and total, a rule of thumb is to use a singular verb when the article the precedes the noun and a plural verb when the article a is used.

If one extends this standard to other nouns, the sentences in question should be: A group of analysts were gathered and the panel of physicians has met. ... Which seems like the logical solution.

The headline with new wave was clearly right in using the plural verb are and the plural pronouns their and they -- thus avoiding this sort of absurdity: A new wave of philanthropists is rushing to spend its money before it dies.

12 comments:

mlivingston said...

A group of analysts gathered; the panel of physicians met.

Bill said...

Sure. And we really shouldn't be debating "Indian" vs. "Native American" because we're all just people and we shouldn't be so preoccupied about race and ethnicity all the time. And those housing prices I mentioned last week really were too high.

The point is, sometimes you're going to want to say that a bunch of people are going to the mall, and you don't want the "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" crowd changing "are" to "is."

rfs1962 said...

Something I edited today: "A lot of people were thrilled ..." You'd find yourself in a slender minority -- an isolation chamber, perhaps -- if you insisted that a lot of people "was" thrilled about something.

Bill said...

Precisely.

rfs1962 said...

This was in the 8/3/06 NYT:

A group of entrepreneurs is harnessing the perpetual motion of the ocean and turning it into a commodity in high demand: energy.

It seems like if they're working separately, the verb should be are. On the other hand, if the entrepreneurs working separately, they probably aren't a group.

And what do you call a group of entrepreneurs, anyway?

downtable said...

A howling pack, probably

Len said...

I would suggest that a group of entrepreneurs might be called an investment. Or perhaps an infestation. I don't know. I'm good with these things.

Len said...

That should have read, "I'm not good at these things." Which only goes to prove my point.

Jimmy said...

Something I edited today:

"The duo pays tribute to some of its favorite artists who have inspired it."

to

"The duo pay tribute to some of their favorite artists who have inspired them."

Clunky either way (who have inspired them?) but clients always get what they want.

Bill said...

Definitely the right edit, Jimmy. I've quoted this before, but a while back Nicole Stockdale posted this excerpt from a John Bremner lesson:

"Most American newspapers will say, 'The couple was married yesterday.' Great. God bless 'em. The couple was married yesterday. And then, if you're going to be consistent, then it went to Florida on its honeymoon, yes-yes, yes-yes. Well, then it had an argument. And then it decided to have a divorce. It went its separate ways."

MuPu said...

According to FOX/Fox News (Aug. 31, online): "All sorts of sensitive information pile up inside our cell phones, and deleting it may be more difficult than you think."

I guess it's important that we watch those "sorts" in our cells.

After using "pile," though, they had a midsentence change of heart and reverted to it.

MuPu said...

In my previous post, I should have attributed the news excerpt to the Associated Press.

Doesn't look like anybody changed it -- not even, ahem, the Washington Post.