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Author Topic: Subject-verb agreement for group nouns in English  (Read 198 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: July 01, 2017, 04:51:07 PM »

Question by Nick Legaspi via Messenger in the Forum’s Facebook Gateway (July 1, 2017):

From what I have been taught since grade school, the pronoun should agree with the noun it refers to. However, it is now common to see or even hear sentences like “The defense secretary said they [referring to his department]...” or “The agency said they will review...” Is this ok?

My reply to Nick Legaspi:

Yes, in American English, the particular construction you presented is grammatically correct and acceptable usage: “The defense secretary said they need a bigger budget for next year.” This is because somehow, the singular possessive adjective “his” or the plural possessive adjective “their” simply doesn’t sound right: “The defense secretary said his/their department needs a bigger budget for next year.” Of course, using the article “the” is much better, as in “The defense secretary said the department needs a bigger budget for next year,” but the problem is that “the” doesn’t evoke the possessive sense to indicate that the speaker is, in fact, the head of that department. In direct speech, of course, the possessive adjective “our” is grammatically acceptable, as in: “Our department needs a bigger budget for next year,” the defense secretary said. Note though that it sounds somehow vainglorious, even arrogant.

Indeed, based on my usage observations above, this particular usage you presented is so problematic that for simplicity’s sake, British English had long ago deemed all group nouns as both grammatically and notionally plural, as in “The company wish to inform you that their representative will pay you a visit next week” and “The British government are demanding an immediate cessation of hostilities."

I trust this will adequately clarify things for you.

Rejoinder by Nick Legaspi:

Thanks a lot.
« Last Edit: July 01, 2017, 04:53:08 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

Miss Mae
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« Reply #1 on: July 05, 2017, 10:16:10 AM »

That's puzzling!

I have also been taught the same thing in grade school. Why was the "rule" changed? Couldn't it be just “The defense secretary said his department needs a bigger budget for next year” if the defense secretary is a male or “The defense secretary said her department needs a bigger budget for next year” if the defense secretary is a female? Likewise, the sentence “The company wish to inform you that their representative will pay you a visit next week” could be “The company wish to inform you that its representative will pay you a visit next week” or the sentence “The British government are demanding an immediate cessation of hostilities" could be “The British government is demanding an immediate cessation of hostilities," right?
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Joe Carillo
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« Reply #2 on: July 06, 2017, 11:39:38 PM »

Some of the received wisdom about English grammar that we learned in grade school turn out to be generalizations or simplifications, not grammatically wrong but simply unsuitable usage in some situations. Our job as learners of the language is to adjust and make ourselves up-to-date with these evolving changes in usage and idiom.
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Miss Mae
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« Reply #3 on: July 07, 2017, 09:40:40 AM »

I understand.

I'd just strive to always keep up then.
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