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Archive for the ‘plural pronouns’ Category

Rock bands and sports teams cause chaos among grammarians. In the last post, I described how collective nouns — words like jury that refer to a group of people acting as one unit — take singular pronouns. (They also take singular verbs.) Therefore, these sentences are correct:

The band released its latest CD.

The team posted its injury report on the Internet.

But what about these sentences?

The Rolling Stones released its latest CD.

The Pittsburgh Steelers posted its injury report on the Internet.

They sound terrible! And good luck finding guidance in grammar books, most of which avoid the tricky issue of whether the names of rock bands and sports teams are singular or plural.

However, other reference books have declared usage rules for the fields of sports and entertainment, where the names of collective units usually sound plural. (A note to my international readers: These are guidelines for American English. The British have a different outlook on collective nouns.)

The Associated Press Stylebook offers this somewhat contradictory entry:

Team names and musical groups that are plural take plural verbs. The Yankees are in first place. The Jonas Brothers are popular. Team or group names with no plural forms also take plural verbs: The Miami Heat are battling for third place…. Many singular names take singular verbs: Coldplay is on tour. Boston is favored in the playoffs. The Cardinal is in the NCAA tournament.

Linguistic nitpicker William Safire wrote a column on the topic after receiving queries about how to handle situations where teams like the Miami Heat or Colorado Avalanche play teams with plural names:

I see a headline atop The Washington Post: “Jazz Beats Bulls,” with the verb construing the first team, from Utah, as singular. Had the game gone the other way, however, the headline would have read “Bulls Beat Jazz,” construing the Chicago team as plural.

His verdict? Writers should “go with the natural sound of the language. If the team name ends in s, go with the plural verb…. If not, construe it as singular.”

However, most journalists shun the idea of mixing and matching. Rolling Stone magazine disregards the AP stylebook and uses all band names as plurals, as evidenced by these examples from the magazine’s web site:

On a Saturday night in late February, Coldplay are in their North London headquarters, listening to mixes of new songs. 

U2 are legendary for their heartfelt connection with concert audiences. 

Sports Illustrated and ESPN use plural references for all teams, even the Heat and the Jazz.

That usage clashes with the rules for corporate names. General Motors and Dunkin’ Donuts are singular entities that take singular verbs and pronouns even though their names end in s. Therefore, all of these are correct:

General Motors is firing three executives.

The Packers are firing three trainers.

The Foo Fighters are firing three crew members.

What’s the difference? Maybe having the word the in front of band and team names makes the plural version a natural choice.

Or maybe it’s because people don’t stand and cheer at the end of a board meeting.

Additional reading

For more information about the controversy over team names (and more details about British English rules on the subject), read this post from Minnesota Public Radio News that uses the Minnesota Wild hockey team as an example:

Grammar Gone Wild

References

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2011. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print.

Robicheau, Paul. “A Beautiful Night for U2. Rolling Stone. 26 March 2011. Web. 4 Jan. 2012. (Read story here.)

Safire, William. “Singular Heat?” No Uncertain Terms. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. 273-276. Print.

Serpick, Evan. “In the Studio: Coldplay.” Rolling Stone. 20 Mar. 2008. Web. 5 Jan. 2012. (Read story here.)

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What’s wrong with this message, one that goes out to WordPress bloggers thousands of times a day?

No, the answer is not “Jay P. Johnson has poor taste in blogs.” The problem involves agreement. Jay is one person, or singular in grammar lingo. Their is plural. The two words don’t agree.

Reaching agreement is hard in business and in life, and sometimes it’s even harder for writers to get nouns and pronouns to agree. Fortunately, many people miss agreement errors anyway, so no one may notice that you slipped up and wrote they instead of it. But grammar-savvy people all agree: Right is better.

The main problem with pronoun reference comes from a longstanding rule. For centuries, grammar books insisted that the gender of any indefinite subject was male. However, most modern employees would not want to risk the wrath of their female counterparts by writing this:

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

Obviously, business executives can be male or female, but technically, the pesky rule said to refer to them all as men. So people started indiscriminately using their to solve the problem. However, in many situations the word is incorrect.

Current grammar books suggest working around the rule to avoid sexism. Here are a few techniques:

1. Use plurals because plural references have no gender.

Good business executives should hone their computer skills.

2. Use both a masculine and feminine pronoun.

A good business executive should hone his or her computer skills.

3. Use a slash.

A good business executive should hone his/her computer skills.

This technique gets awkward, so use it sparingly. Another hybrid that’s popping up is s/he, which goes beyond awkward. Please avoid it so it doesn’t catch on and become acceptable!

4. Mix and match throughout the document.

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

A company president should remember her responsibilities to her employees.

The mix-and-match method is tricky. Some nonfiction books will use female references in one chapter and male references in the next in an attempt to be fair and consistent at the same time, but in the end this method will feel inconsistent at some level.

5. Rewrite the sentence.

Computer skills are vital for today’s business executive.

One singular sensation

Probably the most common violation of proper pronoun agreement is using the word they, a plural pronoun, to refer back to collective nouns. Collective nouns name a group acting as a single unit and are supposed to take singular pronouns:

The committee presented its findings.

The jury announced its verdict.

Because groups and corporations are run by many people, writers tend to think of those entities in terms of people, a plural concept, instead of the proper singular perspective:

WRONG: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of their business practices.

RIGHT: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of its business practices.

WRONG: Dunkin’ Donuts released their financial report.

RIGHT: Dunkin’ Donuts released its financial report.

Next time: How the Miami Heat upset the grammar world

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