One article said a group of analysts were gathered. ... Another said the panel of physicians have met. ... A headline said A new wave of philanthropists are rushing to spend their money before they die.
Shouldn’t the verbs in these examples have been singular, reflecting the subjects of the clauses, a reader asks?
Group and panel in these cases are collective nouns, with intervening plural nouns before the verbs, and the general rule is to use a singular verb if the idea of oneness predominates and a plural verb if the idea of several or many predominates. As we have observed before, the decision is usually subjective, and the easiest solution often is to change the sentence: Physicians on a panel have met. ...
The stylebook’s entry on collective nouns advises that with words such as variety, number and total, a rule of thumb is to use a singular verb when the article the precedes the noun and a plural verb when the article a is used.
If one extends this standard to other nouns, the sentences in question should be: A group of analysts were gathered and the panel of physicians has met. ... Which seems like the logical solution.
The headline with new wave was clearly right in using the plural verb are and the plural pronouns their and they -- thus avoiding this sort of absurdity: A new wave of philanthropists is rushing to spend its money before it dies.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
The Wall Street Journal, too, is explaining to readers the world beyond Subject-Verb Agreement 101. I offer the following entry from that paper's Style & Substance newsletter, in case it clarifies something that I failed to drive home in all my exasperated entries on the "a bunch of us are going to the mall" topic. (One bit of dissent: I agree that the decision can be subjective, but this isn't among the subjects on which I advise avoiding the issue altogether.)
Posted by Bill at 10:27 AM