Collective consciousness

Does anyone else lie awake at night fretting over collective nouns?

At my current stage of life, I often find myself wide awake in the wee hours, teeth clenched, eyes wide open, brain ticking away like an electricity meter on overload.  It’s 3:00 a.m. when little things become big things.

Last night it was collective nouns and why, even though they are singular, they often precede plural verbs.   You too, eh?

Example:  The couple were on their honeymoon.  Couple, singular; were, plural.  Even as I type this, my computer’s grammar checker flags it as an error.

A collective noun, also called a mass noun or non-count noun, is a noun that represents more than one thing:  couple, team, group, herd and countless more.

The most recent 3:00 a.m. over-analysis was precipitated by a lead sentence I read yesterday in The Washington Post:  “A handful of federal lawmakers are seeking to vastly expand the number of long-distance flights at Reagan National Airport . . .”   If “handful” is the subject, then why isn’t the verb “is?”  “Of lawmakers” shouldn’t matter; it’s just a prepositional phrase of sorts.

Bleary-eyed, I stumbled into my office and consulted two trusted sources.

The Associated Press Stylebook says that “nouns that denote a unit take singular verbs and pronouns.”  For example, “The committee is meeting.”

The Chicago Manual of Style says that a collective noun “takes a plural verb when it refers to the members of the group considered as individuals.”

Are they both correct?

I then scanned about a dozen word blogs for some practical interpretation.

The consensus among observers appears to be that collective nouns are singular and call for a singular verb, except when the members of a group are acting as individuals, in which case the collective noun is plural and requires plural verbs and pronouns.  So, yes, AP and Chicago are both correct.

Which brings me back to the couple on its/their honeymoon.  Are they acting as individuals and if so, is the honeymoon then over?

Tonight I’ll try counting the imaginary flock of sheep that are jumping over a fence.  It is “are,” right?   Oh, never mind.


Filed under All Things Wordish, News, Reading

6 responses to “Collective consciousness

  1. Kathleen

    My mid-night meanderings are quite different than yours!
    “Do I have enough food for 35 people?”
    “Forecast is for rain. How many canopies do we need for 35 people?”
    “How many days to the party? July 7 already? Did I pay the health insurance?”
    “Did I remember to put a stamp on the envelope?”
    “Was it a 44 cent stamp?”
    “Remember to get Liberty Bell stamps before the postage goes up!”
    Deep breathing from the belly, counting down from 100…got to 86 and then…
    “Did I use the hyphen correctly in ‘mid-night’? I mean to say middle of the night not exactly midnight. Did I just use the correct quotes when I typed mid-night? Should the question mark be in or out of the single quote? Is it called a single quote?”
    Thank you Miss Word Nymph for raising my awareness. Perhaps tonight it will be collective nouns.

  2. dave

    I would interpret “a handful of” not as the subject of the sentence, but rather as a counting adjective (if there is such a thing) such as “three” which modifies the subject “lawmakers.” When viewed this way, there is no noun/verb disagreement.

    What I worry more about in this vein, although it doesn’t keep me up at night, is that the British treat “government” as a collective noun.

    • Thanks. That is a good way of explaining it. Now I will be able to sleep.

      • Paul Pinkston

        My problem with “a handful of” is the way I hear it used. A handful of marbles makes sense. But I often hear something like “a handful of ships” or “a handful of countries.”


  3. Alyson

    I have found that diagramming the sentence in question can be helpful. It also serves to kill conversation and empty the room.

  4. Paul Pinkston

    So, if the whole flock jumps in unison, then “it is jumping over the fence.”

    If they jump one-at-a-time (which makes them easier to count and better acts to promote slumber) then “they are jumping over the fence.”

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