On Subject Verb Agreement (with collective nouns)


A friend provided a link to this article, which is an amusing bit about the easter bunny punching someone in a mall. The conversation, however, eventually turned to this line in the article:

The couple were released from jail Sunday and have a May 2 county court hearing.

My esteemed colleague pointed out that this is a violation of correct subject-verb agreement, because “The couple” is singular and “were” is plural. “Not so fast,” I said — “The couple” is a collective noun, which makes the situation a bit fuzzy. A few quick internet searches provided the following rule:

Collective nouns such as class, faculty, committee, audience, crowd, family, team, couple, troop, jury name a class or group. If the group functions as a unit, treat the noun as singular; if the members of the group function individually, treat the noun as plural.

This is truly one of the weirder corners of the english language. Another point was brought up concerning musical groups and sports teams. My esteemed colleage pointed out how Rolling Stone is guilty of such nonsense as: “Phish are releasing a new album.” This, I agree, seems to be completely wrong. “Phish” should be treated as a singular, since it’s the group as a whole releasing a new album. But what about groups such as “The Doors?” What about sports teams with singular names, like the Minnesota “Wild?” Oh well, back to work.

  1. #1 by jcbarret on April 18, 2006 - 12:07 pm

    I’d definitely say “the couple was released” because they were essentially functioning as a unit. You might say, however, “the troop of monkeys were throwing their feces” since they’re probably all doing it, but not in an ordered fashion, and certainly not in unison.
    As for group names, I think you’ve got to have some leeway in the name of style: “The Doors is releasing a new album” is (in addition to being physically impossible at the moment) very harsh on the ears.

  2. #2 by errhode on April 18, 2006 - 1:02 pm

    So, being probably the only person reading this blog who has ever been to a Wild game, the phrasing I usually read/hear is “The Wild are playing tonight,” and (to use another Minnesota team name) you also hear “The Twins are playing tonight.”
    My weirdness on team comes from the Red Sox. You refer to Johan Santana as a Minnesota Twin. Is David Ortiz a Red Sock? Or a Red Sox? I usually just say “a member of the Sox” or something like that, but I’d be interested to know what the official terminology should be.

  3. #3 by ck on April 19, 2006 - 10:47 am

    my understanding is that your colleague is correct when it comes to american english, but your research is correct for british english. they’re just better than we are.

  4. #4 by 1/2 2GD on April 24, 2006 - 10:04 am

    This are an interesting post.