Everybody Gets it Wrong

This is my pet peeve: The team are going to practice. The whole school were going on a field trip. The group have never been here before.

These sentences are wrong.

Teams, committees, families or any other group of people are collective nouns. Each thing has more than one member (you really can’t have a team of one), but those members act as one. Therefore, any kind of grouping requires a singular verb and/or pronoun.

The girl practices. (One person)

The girls practice. (More than one person)

The team practices. (More than one person acting as one – all taking part in the same activity)

The boy has never been here before. (One person)

The boys have never been here before. (More than one person)

The group has never been here before. (More than one person acting as one – all going to one place)

The student is going on a field trip. (One person)

The students are going on a field trip (More than one person)

The whole school is going on a field trip. (More than one person acting as one – all going on a field trip)

You might be thinking that in each example the plural noun (girls, boys, students) are all doing the same thing. The difference is that group/team/school lumps them all together as one.

In the first example, it’s not stated whether or not the girls are all practicing the same thing, but even if they are, several girls (or at least more than one) are being spoken of. Even though technically several people are being spoken of as a team, the term groups them together as one. As a team they’re all practicing the same thing at the same time.

In the second and last examples, it’s clear that the boys have never been here before and that the students are going on a trip. However these nouns are also clearly plural therefore requiring a plural verb. The nouns ‘school’ and ‘group’ lumps the same people together as one.

Picture yourself with your family. It might be large or small but it most likely consists of more than just you. Maybe you have a husband or wife, a child, a sibling, aunt, uncle or cousin. You don’t always do the same things, but sometimes you do. Imagine if your house caught fire. Each one of you would scramble to get out, maybe grabbing a pet or valuable on  your way. But once outside, you’d probably all gather together in one place and someone would (I hope) call 911.

Even though the number of people never changes, they scramble about as individuals and gather as a group, as one unit.

It can be difficult to tell which nouns are collective. For example siblings. A single person can’t be a sibling unless they have a brother or a sister, and even if they’re doing the same thing, “siblings” is still a plural noun.

One way to tell if it’s a collective noun is to try placing the word ‘members’ after it. Siblings are siblings, you don’t have sibling members. You do have team members, family members, committee members and group members. I know that’s confusing because the word ‘members’ itself is plural. The members ARE going, the members HAVE gone. But remember it’s only for reference:

The team is going on a field trip to Milwaukee.

Team members

The siblings are going on a field trip to Milwaukee.

 

The family is going to meet under the Burton Bridge.

Family members

The brothers are going to meet under the Burton Bridge.

 

The church is going to the river for a baptism today.

Church members

The elders are going to the river for a baptism today.

If you can’t decide if the word you’re using is a collective nouns, and adding the word ‘members’ isn’t helping, simply use another word. (If you can’t think of one, try using a dictionary or thesaurus. There are good ones online, on disk and yes, even in hard copy).

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