Collective wisdom

Collective nouns have given me fits over the years. Every time I think I finally have the subject-verb agreement problem figured out, something comes along to remind me that I need to know more.

Collective nouns are singular in form but plural in meaning (group, committee, board, army, class, club, team, etc.) For the most part, we American English speakers consider these words grammatically singular, and we use singular verbs with them. (By contrast, British speakers treat them as plural.) We need to be consistent, though, and use singular pronouns too. The jury reaches its verdict. The board votes today on its proposed amendments.

We also follow the rule of grammatical agreement in making the verb agree with the subject even if the subject is followed by a prepositional phrase that includes a plural. A class of fourth-graders makes a lot of noise when it tours the newspaper office.

But this grammar principle is not that cut and dried. Here is a sentence that a reader objected to recently: The exhibit includes a variety of exhibits, many hands-on, that explain how the brain works. The reader thought that we should have used a singular verb “explains” with the subject “variety.” When the reader called my attention to the sentence, I thought we had made a mistake, too. But I wondered why the sentence sounded OK to the writer and to me with a plural verb.

I found the answer in several good grammar-usage books. The words “variety,” “number” and “total” (and a few others) can be treated as either singular or plural, according The Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference. If we use the article “a” in front of these words, we usually need a plural verb. If we have “the” in front, we need a singular verb. (I had been familiar with the peculiarities of “number,” but I hadn’t internalized the use of the other words.)

Here are examples:

* A number of students have too few credits to graduate.* The number of students with too few credits is lower than we expected.

* A variety of courses are offered to help students meet requirements.* The variety of courses at the small college is impressive.

* A total of 350 students have applied for scholarships.* The total of 350 applicants has overwhelmed the financial aid office.

Here is the American Heritage Book of English Usage on subject-verb agreement and the difference between grammatical agreement and notational agreement.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.