Thursday, April 10, 2008

Collective nouns -- nobody can get them right

From today's Knoxville News Sentinel:

"Farragut's 16 [National Merit] finalists is the most at any high school in Tennessee, said Donna Wright, the school system's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction."

We hope Ms. Wright actually said "are."

Presumably the Sentinel copy desk is viewing that corps of 16 smart Farragutniks as a single unit, which they plainly aren't at all.

Here's another one, from "Lincoln's language and its legacy" by Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker: "In the past twenty-five years, and particularly since the publication of Garry Wills’s 'Lincoln at Gettysburg' (1992), language and its uses has become a central Lincoln subject."

Perhaps the single predicate nominative (a central Lincoln subject) somehow turns "language and its uses" into a single subject. (I just made that up.) But it sure looks weird to me.

Here's one from the News Sentinel sports section a couple of years ago: "Most of UT's signees will not get a full summer of extra work as the vast majority is scheduled to enroll in July as UT's second summer sesson begins."

Surely this sentence is referring to the majority of signees as individuals, which would therefore warrant a plural verb.

After previous GTOTDs about collective nouns, an assistant headmaster at a prestigious school wrote back: "This issue is perhaps the toughest I face. Appreciate your help, but I still don't get it from these examples, and I've never really gotten it. I've seen a million examples of, 'The orchestra is late for the concert,' vs. 'The orchestra are packing up their instruments,' but I've never had a really satisfactory answer."

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