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What strikes you about the following passages?

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Sources:

  1. ‘Our client located in Springvale require a …’: Newspaper classifieds.
  2. ‘Culinary terms: a whole new family of words has been drizzled … before making their way to our plates’: The Reader’s Digest.
  3. Criminal Minds: The unit investigates a mass murder at an internet security company and come to suspect the victims may not be the killer’s true target’: Herald Sun TV guide.
  4. ‘Legacy is keeping their promise to my dad’: Legacy newspaper advertisement.
  5. ‘Your favourite shopping centre is doing their best to help stretch your dollar’: Knox Shopping Centre promotional material.
  6. ‘Sash Novak, from Melbourne’s Danish Club…’: Sunday Herald Sun, 27 February 2004.
  7. Advertisement for Ladakh.

 

In Australia today, there is a lot of confusion around subject-verb agreement. My first observations of subject-verb disagreement were in sports coverage (first verbal, then written journalism), in comments like ‘Geelong are definitely the best team this year’ and ‘Australia are going for gold.’ After that, I have a distinct memory of Johanna Griggs hosting a renovation show at least a decade ago, saying ‘The team are working against the clock.’ I thought, ‘Well, that’s odd, isn’t it?’ It was the first time I had noticed subject-verb disagreement outside a sporting context.

A fundamental of the English language is that when you use a singular noun, the verb that attaches to it must also be singular, and when you use a plural subject, the corresponding verb must be plural. It’s logical. After all, the word ‘team’ is a singular, not a plural, and one should therefore say ‘the team is’ or ‘the teams are’ and never ‘the team are’.

What we are witnessing demonstrates a change in perception (some would call it a misconception): the person referring to the team is not thinking of the team as a unit but as a number of team members. You would say, ‘They’re the best team,’ if you’re referring to all those team members working together, but to say, ‘That team are the best,’ breaches a fundamental rule of traditional grammar. In the first pictured example, writing ‘Our client require’ is equivalent to saying ‘Our client are’, matching a singular subject (‘client’ rather than ‘clients’) with a plural verb (‘are’ instead of ‘is’).

Perhaps the evolution of our language has brought about an exception that permits a plural verb when referring to a singular team or institution. Is this acceptable to you as a user of the English language? Should we just agree to disagree?

I worry that, linguistically, turning from thinking of a team as one inseparable unit to thinking of its constituent parts makes us think more about individual people instead of what the team itself represents. Singularity implies strength through unity, and I applaud the writer of example 6, who used flawless subject-verb agreement.

On the other hand, words like ‘team’ and ‘company’ can come across as impersonal and unfeeling because, using proper grammar, you have to refer to a single team or company as ‘it’. If turning a singular, impersonal noun into a plural has the effect of turning attention towards its members and leaders and consequently increases the accountability of those people, then perhaps this grammatical evolution is desirable. Perhaps it indicates a society that refuses to allow individuals to hide behind an institution, instead lifting the corporate veil to monitor the individual decision-makers at work.

Then again, can’t that be done without matching plural verbs with singular nouns? What’s wrong with saying ‘At Medibank, we believe in Generation Better’? Medibank is a company but we can still focus on its people and retain its identity as an organisation.

The Australian Government’s Style Manual advises that a choice between ‘formal’ and ‘notional’ agreement needs to be made with collective words for groups, such as ‘family’, ‘government’ and ‘team’. ‘Singular or plural agreement may be used, depending on whether the meaning relates to the group as a whole [formal agreement] or to the individuals within it [notional agreement].’

A further question arises in cases like example 2. In the phrase ‘a whole family of new words’, is ‘family’ your subject or ‘words’? If it’s ‘family’, the corresponding verb ought to be singular, whereas ‘words’ takes the plural. The writer here has become confused, starting out with the singular (‘has’) only to use the plural possessive pronoun ‘their’ instead of the singular form ‘its’. The Style Manual observes that the headword (‘family’) normally decides the pattern of agreement, but that where an indefinite expression is used (like ‘a range of’), plural agreement is normal even though the headword is singular.

The truth is that I cringe at subject-verb disagreement because I am a traditionalist. Whatever your point of view, there is one thing on which we must agree: consistency. Most of the examples shown here start by pairing a singular subject with a singular verb, only to falter into the plural by the end of the sentence:

  • In example 3, ‘the unit investigates’ changes to ‘[the unit] come to suspect’.
  • In example 4, ‘Legacy is’ indicates a singular subject, so the writer should use ‘its’ instead of ‘their’.
  • Example 5 mirrors the problem in example 4.

Inconsistency smacks of bad editing and these sorts of errors can make your writing jarring to readers. Decide whether your meaning requires singular (formal) or plural (notional) agreement and stick to your choice, but remember this: you can’t go wrong if you use formal agreement.

 

The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 382 (December 2013 –February 2014).

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