Group are Singular

Little Free Library.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Little Free Library. Photo by Callen Harty.

PLURAL/SINGULAR: With the speediness of the Internet and television exposing all of us to the quirks of usage much faster than ever before our language patterns can change without us even being conscious of it happening. While I understand that there are far more important issues in the world I also believe that language and the way it is used is important. Word choices can create nuances of meaning and while I am not a grammar Nazi (a phrase that has become commonplace because of the Internet) I get confused when the rules I grew up on appear to have been changed or ignored without me understanding how or why.

Over the last couple years or so I have noticed with increasing frequency a tendency by the media to use plural verbs with words that to my mind should be singular. I have seen it most often in the British and Irish press, but more and more it has crept into respected newspapers in America, as well as the mouths of broadcasters. Listen to the news and one will likely hear phrases such as “The Royal Family are vacationing this week . . . ” or “The army are gearing up for the withdrawal of troops.” When I was younger (just a couple years younger) these phrases would have read, “The Royal Family is vacationing this week . . . ” and “The army is gearing up for the withdrawal of troops.”

I am not sure if the rules are changing, whether this is a pretentious attempt to appear somehow more sophisticated, or whether it is simply a change that is occurring regardless of what the rules have to say about it. Looking at various style and grammar guides I cannot find anything to counter what I learned as a youth. What I learned and what I can still find is that the singular form should be used when considering the noun as a singular item or entity. Words that describe an entire group such as family, collective, group, etc. are singular, even though there are multiple components. A family consists of a mother, father, siblings, or some combination thereof, a collective or group consists of its many members. But group is singular. “Group are singular” makes no sense. “Members of the family” would be considered as a plural form: “Members of the family are on vacation.” Family would be considered as a singular form as it is used to describe all of the family members as a single unit: “The family is on vacation.” Yet I keep hearing or seeing examples that seem to break this rule.

I understand that language is fluid and that is one of the beauties of a living language. Latin is dead not only because it is used primarily only in parts of the Catholic Church and the law, but because it is static. The rules are set and the language cannot change to adapt to the times. English and other contemporary languages, however, add hundreds of words to their dictionaries every year and continually change to stay relevant to the times. Maybe my language has changed and left me behind and I wasn’t aware of it, but if it has changed it appears that the grammarians have not caught up with it either. Maybe I’m missing some exceptions that I was never taught. If so, it seems the exceptions have increased over the course of just the last couple years. Maybe I’m reaching grammatical old age and am simply getting resistant to change.

TWO OVERUSED WORDS: Sometimes people hear a word or phrase repeated so often that they begin to use it unconsciously, unaware that the offending phrase has even entered their common usage. With everyone listening to the same television programs and instantly communicating via the Internet catch phrases and popular words enter the public consciousness much quicker than ever before.

A prime example is the word “literally”. Several years ago it was heard everywhere and most of the time it didn’t make sense in context. People all over the country started inserting it into sentences without any forethought (or apparently any afterthought either). Phrases like, “I am literally starving” or “She’s literally a monster” would be uttered without any concept of the true meaning of what had been said. It seems like the word has lost its popularity somewhat but there are still occasional moments when it “literally rears its ugly head” again.

But just as the overuse of “literally” started to disappear another word came to take its place. Actually, it was a word that was actually inserted into sentences needlessly, as an actual filler or something. Somehow “actually” became the most popular word in the English language. It was inserted anywhere it could fit and while it didn’t necessarily change the meaning it served as an unnecessary filler. It is still being overused, but more recently (probably the last year or two) has been supplanted by another unnecessary filler, the word “basically”. Listen to any current television program, especially news reports and interviews, and the word “basically” will come up numerous times. Basically, once you start to actually notice it the awareness may literally drive you crazy.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of more than 20 plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues that he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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