How to use collective nouns
I’d like to begin with a quick mental workout. Do you know which of the following sentences, both found in the same British online newspaper in 2003, would be considered incorrect according to standard British and American usage, and why?
Colchester police has also queried the proposal.
Colchester police have launched a new tough approach on people begging in the town.
If you think the first example is ungrammatical, award yourself a Brownie point or two! Police is one of a few English collective nouns which should only be used with a plural verb. However, many people in today’s media (from my local radio station to the hallowed BBC) seem to be using police with singular verbs such as is, was, and has – it’s one of the solecisms (like apostrophe misuse) that’s guaranteed to bring on an attack of ‘pedantic lexicographeritis’ whenever I hear it. Ok, it’s not the worst crime in the world, so should I care? Do you? Is it just an example of English usage change that is inevitable, and in fact makes police less of an exception to the general collective noun rule?
Collective nouns: a very short explanation
Let’s turn the spotlight on collective nouns and try to understand why they can sometimes lead even respected English writers and speakers into murky grammatical waters.
Collective nouns, such as family, team, audience, or police, are so called because they refer to a group of people or things considered as a whole, that is, collectively. The thorny grammatical issue is one of agreement, or matching subjects and verbs. A collective noun has a singular form but it denotes more than one person or thing: should it therefore be accompanied by a singular verb, a plural verb, or is it an ‘anything goes’ situation, and either verb form is acceptable? As a general rule, you can check the dictionary if you’re not sure – every collective noun has a piece of information about what verb form it should take, and most can be followed by either a singular or a plural verb.
The British view…
However, the verb form used can depend on the emphasis of the sentence, and accepted regional usage, so no wonder many people are confused. In British English it’s absolutely fine to treat most collective nouns as either singular or plural – you can say my husband’s family is very religious or my husband’s family are very religious.
…and from across the Atlantic
American English takes a slightly different approach to the agreement of verbs with collective nouns. There is a very strong preference for the use of singular verbs with such nouns, so in American English you are much more likely to see, for example:
His company’s legal team is investigating the matter.
His company’s legal team are investigating the matter.
However, using a plural is acceptable in American English if the writer or speaker wants to emphasize the individuals in a group rather than regarding the group as a single entity:
The NY audience were their usual reserved selves.
A pitfall or two for the unwary
But (and there is always a ‘but’, who said language was straightforward?) there are a few exceptions and issues to beware of. If you look up police in our online dictionary, you’ll see that it bears the information ‘treated as plural’. This is current accepted usage in both British and American English, hence the reason why sentences such as ‘the French police was at his heels’ always set off grammatical alarm bells in my mind.
What you also need to watch out for, in both American and British English, is the mistake of mixing up singular and plural subjects and verbs in the same sentence, paragraph, or piece of writing. The following sentence is grammatically incorrect because the subject and verb in the first clause (government is) are singular and the subject and verb in the following clause (they have) are plural:
X The government is by no means environmentally perfect: they have invested only £37m in renewable energy sources this year.
To ensure consistency and good English, the sentence should be rewritten either as:
√ The government is by no means environmentally perfect: it has invested only £37m in renewable energy sources this year.
√ The government are by no means environmentally perfect: they have invested only £37m in renewable energy sources this year.
The way forward?
Returning to the police example at the start of this piece, Oxford’s two-billion word database of 21st century English, the Oxford English Corpus, contains a fair proportion of examples of police being used with a singular verb in reputable sources such as the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Boston Globe. It seems that a sea change may be under way. Although still considered ungrammatical according to standard British and American usage, are we seeing the gradual process in which police falls into line with other collective nouns and it becomes acceptable to use it with a singular verb?
Oxford lexicographers, descriptivists to the core, are constantly monitoring language around the world for this and many other changes, and will be sure to note the tipping point when (or if) police takes a singular verb in a significant majority of cases, and should that occur, I promise to try to restrain myself from wincing every time it’s so used.