Collective Nouns — a Singular (or Plural) Puzzle

jury as unit vs. jury as individuals

“Lieutenant Smith, I think you should see this.”

Sargeant Metaphor placed a copy of The Pencil Post on Grammar’s desk. It had this paragraph circled in red:

The jury in the En Dash identity theft case is expected to reach a verdict today.

Dash is accused of thousands of counts of masquerading as a hyphen. After a long trial and verdict, the jury will be able to return to their families.

“Yes, it’s been a long and exhausting trial, but there’s no doubt in my mind that she’ll be found guilty.”

Dis Connect, looking over Grammar’s shoulder, agreed, “She’ll get what she deserves.”

“That’s not why I’m showing you this. Look at the first and last sentences. How can ‘jury’ be singular and plural? Should I send a couple of officers over to The Pencil Post to see about it?”

“Actually, there’s nothing wrong with that paragraph, ” Grammar said. “‘Jury’ is a collective noun and can take either singular or plural verbs and pronouns depending on how it is being used.”

“I dunno, Boss. That doesn’t sound right,” Dis said.

“Collective nouns — like ‘family,’ ‘team,’ ‘flock,’ ‘class,’ and ‘crowd’ — are singular when the members work as a unit and plural when individuals take separate action. In this case, the jury will be acting as a unit in providing a verdict but as individuals when returning home.”

“Oh, you mean like ‘deer’ which could be a buck standing in the woods or a whole herd,” Dis said.

“No, that’s just the same word for the singular and plural form a noun,” Grammar explained.

“What about corporations. Can a corporation be a singular and plural noun?” Sgt. Methaphor asked.

“Well, most of the time a corporation is singular since it usually acts in a unified manner. Plus, corporations like Kraft take ‘it’ as the pronoun despite what so many writers do,” Grammar said.

“Well, it still seems fishy to me,” Sgt. Metaphor said as she walked back to her desk.

Who’s Organizing Team Pronoun-Antecedent?

Who's on first

“Grammar, have you heard about the new softball league?” Detective Dis Connect asked his partner.

“No, who’s organizing it?”

“Ralph told Norman he should be in charge, but Serena told Mabel she would be better at it.”

“What?” Grammar was confused.

Dis just prattled on, “They organized their own teams and just took over.”

“Who took over?”

“They did. They just started it up, but they need more teams since they only have two.”

“Whose teams are set?” Grammar asked.

“The Comma Comets and the Paragraph Panthers. But it needs a few more people for a full roster,” Dis explained.

“Which needs more players?”

“The team does. Haven’t you been paying attention?”

“I thought I was, but now I’m just confused,” Grammar said. She felt a bubble deep in her memory hinting that she had heard this before.

“They have it all set. You just have to sign up for that team or organize your own.”

“If I start my own team, who gets the roster?” Grammar felt a migraine coming on.

“Just email it to them. They’ll get back to you. There are lots of officers who want to play. You should talk to her about being your pitcher.”

“Who?”

“Well, you just can’t have anyone pitch. You need someone with talent. I’d start with her then have him as a backup.”

“You know what, Dis?” Grammar sighed. “I think you’re the guy for the job. Let me know what position you want me to play when you get it all sorted out with them.”

Can ‘It’ Solve the Pronoun Conflict?

Pronouns in handcuffsThe squad room was packed with third person plural pronouns hauled in after the Usage Unit’s raid.

“It ain’t fair!” Them protested. “Somebody has to step in and take care of things.”

“Yeah,” They chimed in. “You think He and She are gonna step in, those weaklings?”

“Don’t you have something better to do with your time than constantly hounding me about something?” Their complained.

Dis Connect shook his head sadly.

“You’d think they would learn and not hook up with singular antecedents,” Dis said.

“Well, it’s not entirely their fault,” Grammar Smith said. “Unlike many other languages, English doesn’t have a gender neutral, singular, third person pronoun. So, to avoid sounding sexist, many writers (and most speakers) put in the plural. This is likely when you see pronouns like anyone, someone, each, or somebody as the antecedent.”

In English, when the gender of the antecedent is unknown, the singular third person pronoun traditionally used is masculine:

Every student must make up his mind about things.

“Of course, that makes about half the population (like me) unhappy,” Grammar said.

One solution is to use both singular third person pronouns:

Every student must make up his or her mind about things.

“Very clumsy, and I especially detest the artificial s/he construction,” she continued.

“What about it?” Dis asked. “That’s a singular, gender neutral, third person pronoun.”

“That’s a funny thing,” Grammar replied. “You would think, with all the fluidity of the English language, that would be a logical choice. Then again, who said proper usage was always logical?”

It is only used when referring to things or animals, never people.

“Lots of people use they with singular antecedents, but it tends to get confusing,” Grammar said. “There are some people who think gender is not binary, so just he and she are not enough to reflect that.”

“I’ve heard some people use ze as a neutral pronoun,” Dis offered.

“Yes, that may be the wave of the future,” Grammar mused. “Or maybe people will just use it. No matter what, it looks like the rules are going to change.”

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