Collective nouns “may be treated either as singular or plural, but not as both singular and plural in the same sentence,” writes John B. Bremner in “Words on Words.” I wrote about collective nouns in an earlier post. I did not cite Bremner in that post, although his wisdom also informed my continuing study of collective nouns. (Bremner, for those new to this blog, is the late distinguished professor of journalism at the University of Kansas and a hero to many copy editors, even those of us who know him only through his book.)
I also relied on Bryan Garner’s “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.” Of collective nouns, Garner writes, “The main consideration in skillfully handling them is consistency in the use of a singular or plural verb.” He also points out that, although in American usage, certain collective nouns always demand a singular verb, “you can’t be doctrinaire on this point of usage.” He cites “faculty,” “couple” and “majority” as words that sometimes need a plural verb. He also provides an entry on “variety,” which I wrote about in my earlier post. “When the phrase a variety of means ‘many,'” Garner writes, “it takes a plural verb.” Garner has a cross-reference in his “variety” entry to “synesis,” the principle that, in some constructions, logic triumphs over grammar. He cites “a number of” as the classic example of synesis. Even though “number” is technically singular, we accept that the phrase “a number of” will be followed by a plural verb.
As a grammar geek, I sometimes let my grammatical sense overwhelm my logic. I found these wise words from Bremner and Garner humbling and empowering at the same time.
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.