Word Court

KENNETH SHAY, of Ann Arbor, Mich., writes, “Has systematic violation of a particular kind of subject-verb agreement become so commonplace as to be acceptable? The violations in question attend nouns that, if I recall correctly from junior high school, are termed collective: singular concepts that refer to multiples. The violations take a form like ‘A large number of insurgents were turned back at the border,’ instead of ‘A large number of insurgents was turned back at the border.’ Or am I focusing on but a small part of a bigger problem: a failure to distinguish collective nouns from plurals? I encounter variants on The seething mass of undergraduates turned their anger on the campus police’ instead of ‘… its anger on the …’ with distressing frequency and from an expanding variety of sources. Are we in the midst of an unstoppable evolutionary grammatical adjustment?”

Not at all. No adjustment is required, because treating a collective noun as plural has been perfectly acceptable (in the right contexts) for at least a hundred years. For instance, here’s a sentence by one Fitzedward Hall, which was published in The Nation in 1897: “A good number of them were, doubtless, brought across the ocean by British immigrants.”

The word number is a special case: a number of almost always takes a plural verb (as in A large number of insurgents were turned back”), and the number of almost always takes a singular (The number of insurgents was large”).

As for other collective nouns, according to H. W. Fowler in his magisterial Modern English Usage (1926), they “are treated as singular or plural at discretion—and sometimes, naturally, without discretion.” The approved approach is to treat the noun as singular if you’re thinking of the group—what the collective noun names—as an entity: “The mass of undergraduates was surging toward the police officers.” But if you’re thinking primarily of the group’s members, either treat the phrase as plural or consider lopping off the collective noun. For example, the sentence “The undergraduates were surging toward the police officers” might satisfy you and me both.

ADAM GORDON, of Los Gatos, Calif., writes, “At the advertising and marketing agency where I work, we have an ongoing debate about the number of spaces between a terminating period and the first letter of a new sentence. We writers were all taught to use two; my artists insist that one is the current rule. Would you be so kind as to adjudicate?”

Do anything you like in letters, e-mail, business memos, and other writing that’s an end in itself, but put one space between sentences in writing that’s going to be published, whether in print or on the Web. It’s standard.

This wasn’t always the case. You can find extra space between sentences in books from as late as the 1960s. No doubt this was in part an aesthetic choice. But I suspect that extra space between sentences became common mainly because type used to be set by hand, and it was easier to justify the lines by adding substantial spaces between sentences than by inserting smaller spaces between all the words. When automated typesetting came in, the machines could readily add space throughout the line, and the old practice died away. Then came computerized typesetting. In its early days, two spaces between sentences that came at the end of a line sometimes turned into one awkward space at the beginning of the next line—so publishers told typesetters to break the two-space habit if they hadn’t already. And here we are.

JIM BATTERSHILL, of North Vancouver, British Columbia, writes, “Please discuss the phrase corporate citizen. The usurping of the rights of citizenry by companies is not only an oxymoron, it is a travesty.”

Temper, temper! Shouldn’t we be glad when corporations behave like responsible members of a community—like good citizens? And isn’t it encouraging that enough of them do so that a term for them has been coined? Corporate citizen has been in general use for at least twenty years. If corporations and other organizations can be called friends (friends of the court, for example, are usually organizations) and enemies (enemies of the state sometimes are), surely they can be citizens too.

Do you have a language dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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