or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, July 04, 2005

Two For One

North American English and British English, it is no secret, differ in a number of ways, and not just in vocabulary. One interesting difference is the way they treat collective nouns.

A collective noun is one that looks singular but is composed of discrete elements and therefore could conceivably be seen as plural. "Government" is one such word, as are "family" and "committee". In North America, we nearly always treat collective nouns as singular, and therefore they take a singular verb: "My family is driving me crazy", "The government released its latest economic statistics today." In England, in contrast, such words are treated as plurals: "The committee have finally publicised their results." (Another aspect of this is that the names of musical groups are treated as plural in England: they would say "R.E.M. are touring next year," whereas we in North America would use the singular verb--unless, of course, the noun was clearly marked as plural, as in "The Rolling Stones are touring this year". This leads to the occasional problem, such as the name of the group Eurythmics, which, despite its apparently plural ending, is in fact a singular noun.)

Even when we think we know something should be singular or plural, we still run into problems with verb number. Here's a recent sentence from The New Yorker:

"“By the late eighteen-fifties, approximately four thousand spectators attended the graduation exercises at Philadelphia’s Central High School—and twice that number was turned away,' Reese writes."

Now: should the final verb ("was") in the quotation be singular or plural? The very precise New Yorker stylebook obviously says it ought to be singular, but make no mistake: this issue has been in contention for a long time, and it still isn't settled--it probably never will be. Their argument will be that "number" is a singular noun and therefore takes a singular verb: it certainly looks like a singular noun. The other side will argue that there is an implicit plural noun in that sentence--"twice that number of people"--and therefore "number" acts as a plural noun and ought to take a plural verb: "twice that number were turned away", exactly as it would be if the sentence had read "twice that many were turned away".

The only reason the usage even caught my eye is that I instinctively think of "number" as a collective noun, one which takes a plural verb. I think if I were Reese, I would have written around the problem by using "many" instead of "number". Sometimes it's just better to take the safe, uncontentious route.


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