Tag Archives: The Associated Press Stylebook

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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