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.

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3 Responses to “Team Grammar: The Fightin’ Collective Nouns”

  1. basketball teammates August 10, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Good job, Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Spanish Nouns | School-e Ltd blog - October 9, 2011

    […] hope we helped with the Spanish demonstratives. (Spanish info) Mouse here for Related LinksTeam Grammar: The Fightin’ Collective Nouns This entry was posted in General info, Spanish Grammar and tagged collective nouns, common […]

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