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[Thursday 03 January, 2013]
You’ll know that most nouns have a singular and a plural, and that you form most plurals by adding an s to the singular: boy--boys, girl--girls, horse--horses. (At least, I hope you know. If not, you’d better sneak a quick look at the entry on number.) Well, here’s a Further Fascinating Fact about nouns. Some nouns have two plurals. And one of the plurals looks the same as the singular!
ERIC BLUEBOTTLE: Excuse me.
ME: Yes?
ERIC BLUEBOTTLE: I’d like to give up English and do something easy like nuclear physics, please.
Shame on you Bluebottle. It’s not as weird as it sounds. Let me tell you a story which will make everything clear. Imagine you want to start a new school club. You form a committee. It’s a great committee. It meets every Wednesday. One Wednesday the people on the committee have a row. They can’t make their minds up. They fight and scream at each other. One member is found at the bottom of the river with cement blocks tied to his legs. The Sun’s headline shrieks:
SCHOOL COMMITTEE TOLD OFF BY HEAD
TWO NEW COMMITTEES TO BE FORMED
Says head: ‘The committee are a disgrace to the school. Each surviving member will have extra homework for a month.’
What can we extract from this piece of nonsense? Three uses of the noun committee:
The committee was great. It was great. (singular subject, singular verb)
The committee were angry. They were angry. (plural subject, plural verb)
Two committees were formed. They were formed. (another plural subject and verb)
You see? Two plurals. Nouns like this are called collective nouns. They have this name because they always refer to collections of people or things.
Cartoon 20a
But why have a plural looking like a singular? It’s because collective nouns are used in two ways. With a singular verb, you play down the fact that there are lots of individuals involved, and look at the noun as if it were a single unit. With a plural verb, and no -s ending on the noun, you do the opposite - you really emphasise that there are lots of individuals within the group. Try to feel this difference with some other collective nouns:
Our class has maths at 10 o’clock.
Our class are arguing amongst themselves about uniforms.
Their headquarters is to be found just outside Bristol.
Their headquarters consist of several old huts and a garage.
Does that make things clear, Bluebottle?
Bluebottle? . . .
Where have you gone, Bluebottle?
Related notions: concord, noun, number, subject, verb

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