Friday, June 14, 2013

Plural or singular - the fun continues

A bit of a firefight broke out over on the AP Stylebook group on Linked-In when Michael Bowers, an editor in New Jersey, pointed to an entry on his new blog (hey, who can't like a guy who went to IU and lives a couple of towns away from where I grew up).

Unfortunately, a couple of entries earlier, he tried to negotiate the landmine-studded world of singular/plural subject-verb-pronoun agreement. And it brought sometimes fiery blowback to his LinkedIn post, especially to his guidance on these two sentences:

The couple is hoping they can adopt a child.
The family invested all their money in stocks. 

On commenter pointed to the National Geographic style guide on singular and plurals to bolster his point.

Bowers' guidance, to use it/its in those sentences, is still what I'd prefer, but it's becoming less and less mandatory under our increasingly idiomatic language.

(He stumbles, however, when he says that in the sentence Boston won their third straight game today "their" should be changed to "its." While I long ago favored that (and still secretly do), reality is that no less than AP style has now come around to the idea that team names in any form should just be treated as plural, as they almost universally idiomatically are these days.)
Idiom/usage very much is at play these days when you talk about what is called "synesis" or "notional concord." I've written about it here before -- and the entire idea of subject/verb agreement still can be quicksand as you can see by picking up any paper or reading any website on almost any day. But to update things, here's what I wrote over at LinkedIn by way of explanation:

Michael's example of family is the more preferred one as he structured it - "the family" would tend to take "it," even under synesis or notional concord.

The National Geographic's on the use of the plural pronoun: "My family trust only people they know" - the use of "trust" to stay consistent with the plural sense would be very correct and much more a Br. English construction but less likely in Am. English.*

We use such concordance expressions all the time. Ex: My family is coming in for Thanksgiving. I'm going to make them a turkey. (To use "it" there would be awkward at best.)

The problem with synesis, of course, is that it opens itself to all sorts of passionate arguments like this - my synesis might not be your synesis. So one makes ironclad pronouncements in this area at risk without disclosing the underlying context or reasoning (following AP style or some such).

"Couple" is likewise subject to concordance. An argument can be made that Michael is right - "is" is the preferred usage here because the sense is that they are seeking to adopt together. (Contrast: The couple have been arrested ... (arrested each individually) ... the couple are divorcing (going their separate ways). The couple hopes to win the lottery (assuming they bought that ticket together and plan to share {grin}). Reallity, however, is that "are" has become the predominant form used with the word.

As for "group," the AP's guidance on this ("Takes singular verbs and pronouns: The group is reviewing its position.") is unfortunate because it ignores modern usage and concordance. We tend to use "group" now not to just designate a tightly knit collection operating as a unit but also as a loose collection of people/institutions doing the same thing, but independently. So: "A group of parents have come together to plan a ski trip." (They came together as individual units.) Once the group has come together and decided collectively, however: "The group has decided to go to Aspen."

And then there are those issues with band names and team names (the Utah Jazz, the Stanford Cardinal). Thankfully, most style guides now say just go ahead and use the plural in all cases.

"None" is another fun area. Either "is" or "are" are acceptable, despite what the AP might say ("It usually means no single one. When used in this sense, it always takes singular verbs and pronouns ..."). Actually, for most people these days, it really means "not any," and the plural is just fine. Bottom line: Almost always entirely the writer's or speaker's choice.

Synesis/concordance is so much fun. Bored on a Saturday evening? Find a roomful of journalists, throw in a "singular" noun, a plural verb and a bottle of Jack Daniels and watch the fun begin!

(*The "Englishes" are slowly merging past the point that Shaw once described as "two countries separated by the same language." (The sense has also been ascribed to Wilde and others.) The Internet is facilitating that, and it means we have to think more broadly about these things. I still recoil at the use of "they" to describe institutions - "Walmart said their profit rose ..." but am also realistic enough to expect that will become common idiomatic usage in the next decade.)

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