Archive | July, 2011

Team Grammar: The Fightin’ Collective Nouns

29 Jul

This summer, I coached a basketball team.  4th-6th grade.  Boys and girls.  We were called the Orangemen, as a nod to Syracuse University, which also does not rhyme with anything.  We won our first game of the season, and then no more games after that.

As one of the team’s two coaches, I feel that it is my responsibility to take ownership for this record and tell you right now that it was absolutely the fault of the kids.  They were just not good basketball players.  Some of them were.  Some of them were incredible.  But if I focus on that, then the assumption might be that as a coach, I had the ability to mold some of that talent into more than one win.

So I will not do that.  I am taking the high road and blaming the ten-year-olds.

The Orangemen’s primary problem was that they had too many primary problems.  We once went 0-16 on free throws in a game we lost a game by 2 points.  In the first game we won, we only had three Orangemen even show UP; we had to borrow from the other team.  The Orangemen were not consistent.  They forgot how to run their plays.  They turned the ball over.  In short, they acted like a bunch of little kids; the other teams also acted like a bunch of little kids, but with more point.

Their number one problem, though, was that they did not function as a single unit.  Select Orangemen would have incredible games, while their teammates trotted around like … some animal that trots around and doesn’t pay attention and is bad at basketball.  Fast-breaks fell apart, plays died at the first pass; in short, the Orangemen did not know how to work as one.

What’s most interesting about this is that their very dysfunction as a team brings up a relevant grammatical topic: collective nouns.

I’ve mentioned collective nouns before, but I think it’s important they receive their own posting.

Collective nouns refer to words such as: army, cabinet, faculty, team, public, class, committee, company, group, majority, jury, family, and audience.

What makes the collective noun difficult is that the words on that list (and other collective nouns not listed) are all single entities.  The one class.  The one team.  The words are even in the singular–not the plural–form.  However, each of these single entities is composed of more than one part.  By their definitions, these nouns are always made up of at least two people.

So we’re stuck: the nouns are, in appearance, singular, but by definition, plural.  What to do?  Do we treat them as singular nouns or plural ones?

The answer is: both.

(And that, government, is how you compromise.

Because running a country and writing a sentence is the same.)

In the case of collective nouns, it’s all about context.  Before you choose whether to treat the word as a singular or a plural noun, you must determine whether the members of the group are all acting in unison, or if they are acting discordantly.

If the Orangemen were working as one single unit, I would treat the word “team” in reference to them as a singular noun–one team, functioning as one single being.

Example: The team executed its plays, achieved its goals, and slapped some powerful high-fives to boot.

Since team is singular (all members of the team are doing the same thing), I use singular pronouns (in this sentence, its) to refer to it.

If, however, we wrote honestly about the Orangemen, we would acknowledge that in most cases, they did not function as a single unit.  They were never on the same page, always operating on what appeared to be different timetables, plays, strategies, and planets.  When writing about THIS team, I would treat the word “team” as a plural; this puts the emphasis on all of the individual parts.

Example: After the game, the team are heading to their homes, changing their clothes, and wondering if they had just been at a circus or a basketball game.

It sounds a little awkward, but since the Orangemen do not all travel together to one home where they simultaneously change clothes and begin the act of wondering, the plural verb are is correct.

Always consider the context with collective nouns.  If you say “The class disagrees,” you are treating class as a singular noun and saying that all of the members of one class disagree with something.  If you say “The class disagree,” you are treating class as a plural noun, and this indicates that the parts of the whole are operating separately–disagreeing amongst themselves.

If you get stuck and can’t determine whether a collective noun should be plural or singular, you can do one of two things:

1. Use the word members (the team members, the family members).  Members is a straightforward plural noun, and you can treat it like that.

2. Re-word your sentence or use a different word.  This isn’t always easy or possible either, but be thankful that you have options: your words, you lucky duck, are not 10-year-old children whom you are required by league standards to sub in every five minutes, even if they are wearing their glasses backwards and picking scabs on their knee and when you say, “I need you to set harder screens down low, Noah,” reply, “I think I am going bald.”

Let’s see you coach that, Denzel.


Girls Want to Have Just Fun

16 Jul

There is an epidemic sweeping America, and it is not just.

It does involve the word just, though; now you know that I made a hilarious joke in the first sentence.  As I always say, the best cure for any epidemic is a healthy dose of punicillin.

When they are used as adverbs, the words just and only can often be used interchangeably.  There is little difference between saying “He’s just a kid!” and “He’s only a kid!”  The only error here would be if you were talking about Harry Potter.  He’s not just an anything.  He’s The Boy Who Lived.

There are shades of difference, of course.  Only and just can both be adjectives (meaning that they describe nouns or other adjectives) or adverbs.

Refresher: an adverb is a word that modifies a verb.  If I say, “He drew his wand slowly,” then the verb drew is being modified (or further described) by the adverb slowly.  How did he draw his wand?  Slowly.

Only and just are tricky adverbs because they sound like they can fit about anywhere in a sentence.  Because they sound right to us, we tend to toss them wherever we’d like to in a sentence without any concern about how we’ve altered the meaning.  They’re like the Katherine Heigls of romantic comedies: sure, go ahead, throw her in, wherever, it’ll make sense.  Editor for a sassy girl’s magazine who really just wants to write important political pieces?  Sure.  Sensitive lady hiding under tough girl exterior?  Sure.  Driven career woman who’s surprised by love?  Sure, sure, sure.

But in the same way that Katherine Heigl doesn’t belong everywhere, just and only also do not belong everywhere.  When using these words as adjectives or adverbs, you must put them DIRECTLY in front of the word they are modifying.  Placement determines everything.  I’ll point out the differences in a few example sentences.

1. Only I saw the tree shaped like a bush.

This placement indicates that I am the only one who saw this crazy tree.  Also, the tree I saw was probably just actually a bush.

2. I only saw the tree shaped like a bush.

This placement indicates that the only thing I did–among all of the millions of things I could have done–was see a tree.

3. I saw only the tree shaped like a bush.

This placement indicates that the only thing I saw was the tree; I may or may not have been doing other things, but I definitely saw only a tree.

It might seem a little picky, but where you place these words in a sentence really does alter what message you’re communicating with that sentence.  And the message is everything.

Even though there’s an argument that could be made for a better placement of “just” in the title, my primary problem with Cyndi Lauper’s hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” isn’t grammatical.  My problem is with the message:  I’m afraid it simplifies girls in a way that could cause men to think that dating and marrying us is much easier than it really is.  We just wanna have fun!  We’re that simple!

When I sing this into my hairbrush at the bathroom sink, teasing my bangs and smearing on my favorite baby blue eyeshadow, I like to sing an edited–and I believe, more realistic–version.  It goes something like this:

“I come home in the morning light,

My mother says, ‘When you gonna live your life right?’

Oh, mother dear, we’re not the fortunate ones,

And girls they want to have fun.

But also to do something nice sometimes–

not anything big, you don’t have to spend a lot of money, but it would be nice

to actually get dressed up sometimes; I just bought this dress and all we do is

stay in and watch Law and Order and I’d just like to be able to go somewhere nice and get

all fancy–what do you MEAN this dress looks good on me?  Do I not usually

look good?  Well, I’m sorry I can’t be Mrs. Cleaver every day, and make you coffee

and get dressed up and do my hair and be fancy; and now that I mention it,

I need some space sometimes, you know?  Stop being so clingy.  I need a

girl’s night, because I’m tired of talking

about sports, and why didn’t you call and check-in?  I’ve been gone two hours and

I haven’t heard from you, and just because I go out with some friends doesn’t mean

that you don’t have to call; and now that I mention it, I really wish you would

invite me to watch football games at your friend’s house, don’t

you care about my opinion?  Or are you embarrassed of me?  Please don’t

eat like that when we’re in public; I just want this to be simple

and casual; why don’t you say you love me? That’s all I want, and also,

girls, we want to have fun.”

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