by Michael Bedford
Published at 2018-06-14
Back in September 2017, The Editing Company's own Barbara Kamienski wrote a great blog post about the linguistic challenges presented by subject-verb agreement. As Barbara points out, there are certain subjects that, especially when used in the same sentence, can make it difficult to determine whether verbs in any given construction should be plural or singular.
One of Barbara's examples draws particular attention to this difficulty:
None of the policies has been successful
None of the policies have been successful.
As she states, neither of these constructions is wrong, and the correctness of each construction depends on whether the subject is “none” or “policies.”
That either of these different constructions could be correct introduces a sometimes interesting and at other times frustrating facet of usage and subject-verb agreement: the power of context. As writers and editors know, context is a recurring agitator to grammatical rules, and in the realm of subject-verb agreement, collective nouns offer a lot of latitude where context is concerned.
Linguistic freedom is generally welcome to most writers, but editors are responsible for ensuring grammatical correctness, so it can be very difficult to determine how to choose between two competing constructions.
A general guideline concerning the usage of collective nouns that Barbara mentions in her post is to allow your ear to inform usage. If you're using a collective noun like “team,” you can allow your intuitive sense of correct usage to inform your decision on whether a subject is singular or plural. A great deal of intuition is at work when making these kinds of decisions, much of which most English users take for granted.
I might say, for instance:
“My team is lousy this year,”
Here I easily conjure up a picture of a sports team that has been underperforming lately, and I don't think too hard about why I used the singular “is” rather than the plural “are.”
If we break this construction down, though, the reason for picking a singular verb is clear. I'm making a blanket statement about the team as a single, or collective, unit. Imagine a sports fan discussing their local team, saying:
“My team are lousy this year.”
This construction is just as grammatically correct as the singular construction, but there's something intuitively wrong about it.
Aside from sounding awkward, this construction opens the door for linguistic confusion. It's obvious that I'm describing a team, but a team of what? This second construction sounds more like an evaluation of a team of horses than of a sports team, and since it's not obvious that I'm referring to a sports team then it's not obvious anymore what I mean by “lousy.” In this second construction, it's just as likely that I'm saying that the team are infested with lice as it is that I'm saying that they're underperforming. Awkward constructions like these affect notional concord, and once notional concord breaks down, constructions are opened up to added levels of scrutiny by the reader or listener.
The above example of “My team is lousy this year,” is, in part at least, easy to understand because of linguistic convention. We're used to people griping about sports teams, and we're used to the word “lousy” being used to describe something as being bad, rather than being louse-ridden. We're also used to people identifying local sports teams as theirs, whereas it's pretty uncommon to come across someone complaining about their team of horses.
But, conventions change. They change over time — in 1860 it would have probably been more likely that the above constructions referred to a team of horses than a local sports team — and they change because of differing cultural norms. In North America, one generally refers to government as a single entity, but British speakers sometimes use plural constructions to describe the actions of their government. However, in the case of “government,” unlike “team” or “staff,” plural constructions don't seem as quite as awkward to the ear.
Using basically the same terms as my previous examples, in a casual conversation I could say:
“My provincial government is lousy this term,”
“My provincial government are lousy this term.”
My meaning is clear either way: I'm saying that the government in power in my province this term is underperforming. In these constructions, intuitive notional concord isn't at risk. The singular construction is more widely used, especially in North America, but not ubiquitous so as to detract from the meaning of the plural construction.
Of course, this plural construction still sounds a bit strange, so we call upon linguistic convention to determine which construction is more appropriate and end up with:
“My provincial government is lousy this term.”
We can then save the plural construction for when we're discussing the performance of individual members of the government, as in:
“The representatives in my provincial government are lousy this term.”
The English language is a tricky tool to use. Grammatical rules inform the ways we use English, but rule-following only gets English writers and speakers so far. To take full advantage of the flexibility of the English language, rules must be informed by a solid understanding of linguistic conventions and then tempered by context.
The English language is a continually fluctuating institution that welcomes change every day, albeit sometimes reluctantly. And although this fluctuation makes English difficult to master, it also makes English fun to engage with. The main concern of any writer or speaker of English should be the same, to be properly understood by readers or listeners; and, no matter what a grammarian might say, this is best accomplished by taking note of how English is used by the people who write and speak it, rather than by poring over grammar guides in search of rules for every eventuality.
Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Mount Hope, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com.