Tag Archives: collective nouns

Array we go

For some time, a tattered scrap of paper amid the stacks on my desk has been reminding me to investigate three words, their relationship to one another and the proper use of articles and prepositions around them.

There’s no time like the present, even though I have a myriad of other things to do. Or was that a panoply? Or a plethora?

If you bristled at “a myriad of,” hoping for a Gotcha, simmer down.

I too believed myriad was an adjective modifying a noun, not a noun requiring an “a” before and an “of” after. That’s what I was taught anyway. Weren’t you? Myriad things to do, not a myriad of

Well I looked it up, and numerous (myriad, perhaps) experts agree with Miriam-Webster that myriad is both an adjective and a noun:

“Recent criticism of the use of myriad as a noun, both in the plural form myriads and in the phrase a myriad of, seems to reflect a mistaken belief that the word was originally and is still properly only an adjective. As the entries here show, however, the noun is in fact the older form, dating to the 16th century. The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it.” (Personally, I’d be inclined to come out of the 16th century and stick with the adjective.)

So, in my second sentence of this post, did I use myriad correctly? Probably not. Literally and traditionally, myriad means ten thousand. Yes, I do have myriad things to do but not 10,000. It is also said: to mean a great number, innumerable or a large number of unspecified size.

Next question: is a myriad the same as a panoply? Quite often we hear the two used interchangeably. A panoply can mean a great many things, including military attire or a flashy cover. But it is also a splendid or magnificent array, as a panoply of colorful flags. I don’t know what’s on your desk, but the piles on mine are hardly splendid.

By the way, sources say panoply isn’t preceded by an article such as “a” or “the.”

If panoply is an array, then “panoply of” would be followed by a plural, no? I ask the question because the lyrics of “June Hymn,” a beautiful song by The Decemberists, mentions “a panoply of song” – which makes me wonder if song really means songs, in the same way people lately talk about sport, which used to be sports.

Finally – plethora, also commonly misused. A plethora is too many, an overabundance. Just be sure you know what it means — in case someone asks. For a little context, watch the first minute and a quarter of this clip, from one of my favorite bad movies:

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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.


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