Friday, October 21, 2011

Singulars and plurals

I have a question to put to my erudite band of fellow bloggers. This is a problem I keep hitting, and which critiquers and work colleagues regularly take me to task over.

My problem is that I keep referring to certain collective nouns, specifically nouns that refer to groups of people, in the plural, rather than the singular.

For example...

Suppose at work there is a department called the Standards Office for Paperwork, or SOP (because we like acronyms at work. Yes we do.)

Now maybe I would say something like: SOP has a policy for the use of triplicate forms, which is causing us problems with streamlining our operation. SOP are working with us to find a solution.

I know this is wrong. The problem is that I keep using plurals like this without even thinking about it.

And I think I know why.

When I talk about something that can be seen as belonging to the collective, such as policy (which, after all, could never be the product of real people, only of a faceless machine) I'm perfectly fine with the singular.

But whenever I talk about something that implies real individuals, like solving a problem, I always see the people behind the collective name. I can't help it. And it's as if I mentally insert the words "members of" in front of the noun. So I envisage that last sentence as "Members of SOP are..."

Except that's not what I say. It's just implied. To me, anyway, but other folks don't see it that way.

So, I repeat, I know this is technically wrong, and that is not what I'm asking.

My question...OK, questions, 'cos I'm greedy like

Do you have this same problem?

What do you do about it?

And, whether you are an incorrigible pluraliser or a knowledgeable grammarian, what do you think this says about how you see the world?


  1. Hiya Ian,

    I'm neither an incorrigible pluraliser nor a knowledgeable grammarian. My problem lies in commas and apostrophes. These are demons that haunt me and chase me through every line of my woeful tales.

    My worst, though, is its. it's, its, whatever. It's stupid. Everything in the world (nearly) is made possessive with an apostrophe s. Its as possessive is grammatically wrong, anyway. Follow me on this:

    The cat has a tail. Who's tail is it? The cat's. Cat -> cat's for possessive.

    But what if I am referring to the cat as it? Now, suddenly, the rules change to its tail, instead of it's tail.

    Consider, though, that if I have more than one cat, then I have cats. Ergo, its should just mean more than one it, right?


    Anyway, back to what you were talking about. I don't think I tend to have that problem, so I don't do anything about it. :^) As to what it says about you, I guess it means you haven't yet developed the talent to ignore the people behind the faceless organizations.

    You really need to work on that.

    Tongue firmly in cheek!


  2. I think we all have our own little grammar nits, or mistakes we keep making that others don't seem to have problems with. I don't share this one with you, for instance, but I sure do have my own issues . . . which are too many to list here.

    I try not to lose sleep over it, though.

  3. I mean, that I have my own grammatical tics (like David said) and I have to go back and fix them when I edit them because I know that I do them. It sucks but I know I have certain blindspots (as I do with certain words I spell wrong- but Word fixes those for me!) :)

  4. Andrew, that's odd, I know those rules are stupid but its/it's is one thing I have no trouble with. In fact, wrong usage generally sticks out like a sore thumb for me...which is why I keep bugging folks about them in critiques :)

    David, I certainly don't lose sleep over it, but it's a *facepalm* moment every time someone points it out.

    Danette, strange how each of us have our own different Achille's Heels. Sure I fix them (when I notice them) but so often the fix feels wrong to me.

  5. I get what you mean. Your examples read normal, but not correct. It sounds better the way you have it. Correct grammar sucks.

    My issue is prepositions. I like to think I'm fairly intelligent, but I switch 'in' and 'on' all the time. Thank goodness for critique partners.

  6. I didn't have this problem before, but I might now that you've explained it! *grins*

  7. Lindsey, yes, grammar sucks, critique partners ROCK!

    Uh-oh...sorry Carrie :)

  8. I always put the collective as an entity so that I can refer to it as a singular "it" which makes it easier to remember.

    Instead of the committee members agree, I would say the committee agrees, because each committee member may not agree as it takes a vote to collectively agree.

    Good points though.

  9. Ian, I like your "reasons" for not being grammatically correct. I tend to use "members of the SOP" not only mentally, but verbally, as a way of acknowledging the individuals involved.

    Am I the only one who has a pet-peeve of some using the word "staffs" when referring to members of the staff? Staff to me is a collective word, made up of staff members, so why do people take that ugly shortcut?

    I love thinking about word usage and meaning. Thanks for bringing this up.


  10. I'm lucky I'm not native English O:) So I don't have to deal with this stuff - my language is so much easier, really, in regards to singular/plural/possessive/gender stuff. And when I have to do it in English... well, Crit partners ROCK.

    If I stop to think about it, in my language, your example is singular - so if I have an organization that does stuff - it's singular (even if it's full of people)

  11. Diana, what you've described is exactly what should be done. In fact, I have no problems with "the committee agrees". Where I run into difficulty is when I can't help but visualise the people behind the action, then it automatically reverts to a plural in my mind.

    Saloma, I've never heard of "staffs" before (other than a possessive - staff's) but I think I'd gag if anyone used such an ugly construct.

    Steph, my example is singular in English too. I'm not questioning what is clearly correct, I'm wondering who else out there has trouble with the correct form feeling so wrong.

  12. Oh I am not a huge people pleaser, on the contrary,so I don't trouble myself with being politically correct when it comes to my fellow humans...yeah I am a bit of a bitch, sorry. But you made me think about it's good...I hope. You are a modern citizen my friend, Chapeau bas!!


I love comments. Please feel free to join in the discussion.

I also try to respond to comments. I usually do so during the early evening (Pacific time) which may be many hours away from now!

So if you leave a comment and return some time later and I haven't responded yet, please don't think I'm ignoring you. I'm not. Honest.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...