Sibilance, sibilance, sibilance

Intrepid Reader Sara, who has spent part of her working life in London, asks the following: “The Brits say, ‘The couple are crossing the street’ or ‘The team are playing well.’ I always thought this was incorrect. It should be ‘The couple is crossing the street’ and ‘The team is playing well.’ Have their brains simply become pickled over the years from too many visits to the corner pub? Who’s right?”

While you could say better than I, Sara, whether brain pickling has affected other aspects of British society, it’s not the case here. “Team” and “couple” are two members of a class of words called collective nouns—nouns that are singular, but that are made up of multiple individuals within that singular entity. Other examples frequently given are herd, faculty, and jury. Traditionally, as you’ve noted, British English has been more likely to use a plural verb with these nouns, while American English has opted for the singular.

However, many American grammar and usage guides recommend that the words be treated as singular OR plural, depending on whether the action is being performed by the group as a whole or by the members as individuals. Thus, one might say that the jury reaches a decision (as a group) or that the jury leave the courthouse (separately, proceeding to their respective destinations). Honestly, the latter sentence sounds totally wrong to me. In contrast, as I contemplate pronouns, “The jury reaches their decision” sounds just as correct to me, and maybe a little more so, than “The jury reaches its decision.” Something in my brain is acknowledging the dual singular/plural nature of that noun.

One of my favorite language reference books, Garner’s Modern American Usage, puts it this way: “These are questions more of local idiom than of correct or incorrect grammar.” Dr. Garner stresses consistency—pick a usage and stick with it, and make sure your verb forms match your pronouns. That’s good advice, and tells me that “reaches their” is probably not the best idea.

Recently I came across a great example of how we go back and forth between the singular and plural with collective nouns, even without thinking about it.

In the early ’90s, I loved Mike Myers on Saturday Night Live. He was just so brilliant in almost every role. I still remember and laugh at some of his comic bits, one of which is an installment of “Wayne’s World” [sadly, since removed from NBC’s website] in which Aerosmith makes a guest appearance. Over the last couple weeks, I watched it at least four times as I thought about and wrote this post. I am still laughing! You gotta love a skit where Tom Hanks plays the roadie saying “Sibilance, sibilance, sibilance” into the microphone. The piece includes not only five synonyms for vomit and the term “bitchin’ lips,” but also the phrases “blueprint for the dictatorship of the proletariat” and “Stalinist-era party apparatchik.”

Myers, a Canadian, gives us a little insight into our topic. The skit is 9 minutes, 15 seconds long. At 2:10, he exclaims, “Aerosmith is in my breakfast nook!” But at 5:57, he says, “Aerosmith are here!!” Only a linguist watches Saturday Night Live and sits there thinking about the slippery nature of singular vs. plural verb usage with collective nouns.

Go watch it. Seriously. It might be the best nine minutes of your day.
¹ 3rd ed., 2009, p. 16

About Verla

Wordfreak. Retired private investigator and Spanish court interpreter. Erstwhile librarian. Texan by birth, cheesehead by upbringing, latina by soul, in New Mexico by choice. Lover of things purple. Passionate participant in the Librivox audiobook recording project. We record books that are in the public domain in the U.S. The recordings are then placed in the public domain themselves.
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