Thursday, November 09, 2006

All Publicity = Good Publicity

I didn't realize I was that big in the world of notional agreement, so please put your six-year-old "Al Gore invented the Internet" jokes away. I don't think I'm even particularly radical on the topic, either, but I'll take my Ruth Walker shout-outs where I can get them.

I do, however, want to dispel any impression that I would ever write "South Carolina is looking for their third win." (Hell, it would be "South Carolina are" if you went down that road. Which I wouldn't.) I am also on the record against the likes of "The New England Revolution are currently selling season tickets."

See Pages 85 and 86 of "The Elephants of Style."


ReluctantLeftist said...

So I'm guessing you'd write "Pittsburgh is looking to avenge its loss to New Jersey" (not "are looking" or "their loss") or "Pittsburgh scored two of its goals on the power play" (not "their goals").

Would you write "My family is meeting in Kokomo for Thanksgiving; I am cooking dinner for it"?

Not trying to be snarky here. In fact, I'm honestly not sure what my own opinion is on these sorts of constructions.

"Pittsburgh are in second place in the Atlantic" sounds wrong to my ear, but so does "Pittsburgh scored two of its goals on the power play". I'm not sure why.

One difference is structural or syntactic: In the first example, the verb "are" comes immediately after the noun "Pittsburgh", making the singular/plural contrast more jarring, perhaps. But if one writes "Pittsburgh scored two of their goals..." there's a bit more space between the singular "Pittsburgh" and the plural "their".

Another difference has more to do with meaning: In the first, you're just talking about what position the Pittsburgh team occupies in a list, so it really seems like you're just talking about a single "thing", but in the second example, you're talking about a task performed by a bunch of guys, so the use of the plural "their" seems less unnatural to me.

However, my remarks above are a little vague and perhaps even somewhat inconsistent. So I remain unsure what I think the best approach is.

Doug Sundseth said...

Rather than addressing the referenced article, which I thought confused, I'll address the first comment instead.

I don't have any problems with "Pittsburgh scored two of its goals...". The Penguins play in a team sport, and it seems entirely reasonable to refer to the actions of the team collectively. "We win as a team; we lose as a team." And presumably, "we score as a team." (No citation, as I've seen that statement altogether too many times.)

Now lets ask the harder question: If it's correct to say, "Pittsburgh scored two of its goals...", and if the Pittsburgh team is the Pittsburgh Penguins, would it not be correct to say, "The Pittsburgh Penguins scored two of its goals..."?

I hope I'd never write that, because it's very disrupting to read, but it seems technically correct. (Compare that sentence to, "The Colorado Avalanche scored two of its goals...".)

On the other hand, something like, "The Pittsburgh Penguins hockey club scored two of its goals..." seems unobjectionable, though only if the audience needs the information that the Penguins are (is?) an NHL franchise.

Facially plural names for organizations, when organizations are usually treated as singulars, are tricky if you look at the issue too hard.

Bill said...

Pittsburgh is; the Penguins are. Seems pretty straightforward to me. "The Avalanche is" sounds a little weird, but "the Avalanche are" sounds even weirder.

"Family" is a no-win situation. I try to duck the issue when possible, but if push comes to shove I'll treat it like "couple" and say I'm cooking dinner for *them* (but "each family/couple must bring its own untensils").

Interface said...

This paragraph was printed in The Age, Melbourne, Australia.

U.S. security vendors Symantec Corp. and McAfee Inc. had complained that Microsoft had deliberately delayed handing over information that would help them make their software compatible with Vista. That data have now been made available to them.

"That data have..."???

Third Reading said...

It's simple.

Indianapolis is good.

The Colts are good.

All sports are local.

ReluctantLeftist said...

Another example subsequently occurred to me, illustrating that maybe these examples aren't as simple as we'd like to think.

"Did you see Pittsburgh last night? It scored four short-handed goals!"

"Did you see Pittsburgh last night? They scored four short-handed goals!"

Admittedly, these examples consist of two separate sentences. Still, maybe it's not always so bad to have a "they" that seemingly refers back to a singular noun.

Bill said...

>"Did you see Pittsburgh last
>night? They scored four short-
>handed goals!"

Sure, I'd say that. But I wouldn't write it for publication. Once you have the ability to edit your words, you're free to say "the Penguins."

ReluctantLeftist said...

What if instead of the Pittsburgh Penguins it was the Colorado Avalanche?

Bill said...

The singular names do complicate matters, but your references still need to agree if you're dealing with published copy.

Did you see what the Avalanche did last night? Four short-handed goals!

(Yes, I'm not so doctrinaire about sentence fragments.)

ReluctantLeftist said...

But in a lengthier story, there will almost inevitably come a point where you refer to the team using a pronoun. I guess my question is: If the team name is a singular noun like "the Colorado Avalanche", and if we insist that pronouns referring to the team have to respect the "singular-ness" of the noun, might this force us into awkward constructions?

"They face the Penguins on Thursday" vs. "It faces the Penguins on Thursday". Sure, we could re-work the sentence (e.g. "Thursday's game is against the Penguins"), but is referring to the Avalanche as a "they" really bad enough to warrant this extra trouble? Especially if we permit "a family" or "a couple" to be a "they"?

BTW, been enjoying your blog for quite some time now. It's possible you might get something out of my lengthy rant about uncapitalized personal names, in which I quote from one of your Sharp Points.

Doug Sundseth said...

To step away from sports for a moment, the same issue can come up in other contexts: "Barnes & Noble has/have that book for $4.95." I would always use "has" in this context, even though the subject is facially plural.

Here the collective sense is the important one, because I don't have the choice of visiting either "Barnes" or "Noble" for the book, but must visit "both".

I think the same applies to law firms: "Blow, Doe, & Sasquatch is charging me $200 an hour to fight that DUI charge." (Not "are charging", even though I might be getting separate bills from Joe Blow and Fred Doe.)

I don't think there's a simple rule for these cases. Sometimes you match the grammatical number and sometimes you match the notional number, and you only have idiom for a guide.

Mickey Dee said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mickey Dee said...

I just saw a billboard ad for Mel Gibson's movie, Apocolypto, and it contained the tag line, "No one can escape their fate." What's up with that. It should be, it must be, it has to be, "No one can escape HIS fate" (or HER fate). Well, I will never see this movie because, well, it's a Mel Gibson movie, and he's almost as weird as Tom Cruise. But more important, I can't believe the grammar! No one can escape THEIR fate? Give me a break.

beedubs said...

From today's Star Tribune: "The Wild is two points behind division leader Vancouver."

Please confirm that this is wrong; it hurts.

Bill said...

I think it has to be "the Wild is," because the nickname seems to refer to the wilderness, not the wild as in "the wild ones."

As I've said, neither option sounds particularly good with those singular team names.

beedubs said...

I see your point, but in my mind when someone refers to the Wild they're referring to Wes Walz, Marion Gaborik et al, and not to the wilderness. Shouldn't the reality of what's being discussed control here? I guess that doesn't end the discussion, because what's being discussed is both a (singular) team and a group of hockey players. In any case though, the wilderness is not being discussed.

Bill said...

Well, we're back to square one, then, aren't we? If it's "the Wild are," then it's "Pittsburgh are" and "R.E.M. are," and that's British English, not American English. Stateside we look at the form of the word for things like bands and sports teams (which is why "the wilderness" vs. "the wild ones" is germane) and we treat all countries and companies as singular. The Beatles are, R.E.M. is, the United States is, Goodwill Industries is.