The Land of the Free, and the home of the properly conjugated verb

An Irishman’s Diary about a transatlantic war of words

‘Speaking of army splits, a notorious example of the genre occurs in the classic Elvis Costello song, Oliver’s Army, whose chorus begins: “Oliver’s Army is here to stay/Oliver’s Army are on their way.” Clearly, the army in question there started out as a single entity. Then – possibly over its plans to cross a border somewhere – it became plural, making civil war inevitable.’ Photograph:  Cindy Ord/Getty Images

‘Speaking of army splits, a notorious example of the genre occurs in the classic Elvis Costello song, Oliver’s Army, whose chorus begins: “Oliver’s Army is here to stay/Oliver’s Army are on their way.” Clearly, the army in question there started out as a single entity. Then – possibly over its plans to cross a border somewhere – it became plural, making civil war inevitable.’ Photograph: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Fri, Dec 13, 2013, 01:00

Clearly stung by my implied criticism of his country’s second-person plural pronoun (Irishman’s Diary, December 11th), a US-born reader has countered with an attack on the Irish and British habit of, as he puts it, “taking a singular collective noun and conjugating the verb for plural agreement”. Ouch!

This was once considered wrong everywhere in the English-speaking world, he says, “and still is in America, but not here”. He cites examples of such singular collectives as the “ESB”, “Harvey Norman”, and “a pair of scissors” being treated as plurals for verb purposes.

But he gets to the nub of the issue when he mentions those twin subjects where language often overlaps: war and sport. To quote from his e-mail: “The army ‘has crossed the border’ is correct. The army ‘have crossed’ is not. It [the army] is behaving as a single entity. [Similarly, a] team ‘is’ in training (not ‘are’).”

All right. We’ll bypass the question – unintentionally raised there – of whether border-crossing by armies is ever correct, rather than risk escalating this international grammar dispute even further. But before dealing with the general point about British and Irish English, I have to plead special mitigation for this country.

It is true – indeed I’ve complained about it here myself previously – that we in Ireland can never quite decide whether groupings are singular or plural. This is especially so when we’re discussing governments, political parties, and armies, official or otherwise.

Thus it’s not unusual to hear a news report (the habit is more prevalent in speech, and by extension broadcasting, than print) wherein an entity starts out singular, then almost immediately turns plural, eg: “The government has published a white paper [. . .] and a spokesman said they would now welcome submissions from the public.”

But history is partly to blame. As our American guest must know if he’s been here long, the first item on the agenda of every new Irish organisation is the split.

This typically happens some time between the inaugural mention of the singular collective and the following verb, which must then be conjugated plurally, to reflect the open feuding that has just broken out in the committee room.

And yet, as my American correspondent concedes, the single/plural confusion is not unique to this island. It applies equally to Britain. In fact, speaking of army splits, a notorious example of the genre occurs in the classic Elvis Costello song, Oliver’s Army, whose chorus begins: “Oliver’s Army is here to stay/Oliver’s Army are on their way.”

Clearly, the army in question there started out as a single entity. Then – possibly over its plans to cross a border somewhere – it became plural, making civil war inevitable. And I remind readers that Elvis Costello is English (although the fact that he was born Declan Patrick McManus may not be irrelevant).

But the e-mailer also touched on sport: an area where the divergence of custom on either side of the Atlantic is even more dramatic. When you’re used to Irish or English newspapers, it can be quite jarring to read in the New York Times that, for example: “Arsenal is top of the English Premiership . . .”

No doubt this is even more jarring for supporters of the entity known as Manchester United. But as Americans would ask, why should a team, especially one that calls itself “United”, be treated as individuals (even if that’s the way United are playing currently), and so conjugated in the plural? No, I don’t know either.

Getting back to Irish politics, the departing troika has been another test of the single/plural question, with much resultant confusion. It’s usually treated as a single entity. But I read at least one editorial (not in this paper) recently that claimed the troika “have had a huge influence”. And all I can suggest is that the disagreement arises from knowing that there are differences of opinion among the trio’s constituent parts, differences sometimes voiced in public.

Then again, there is never any such confusion in the case of another troika, whose influence in Irish life has been somewhat diminished of late but is still a big factor. I refer of course to that ultimate three-Person team, the Blessed Trinity.

No doubt it helps that the Holy Ghost is rarely quoted in the press. But the Father and the Son have both been very voluble, and in rather different ways. Between the Old and New Testaments, there certainly seemed to be a major change of emphasis, if not policy, especially in such areas as justice. Despite which, I have never known the Christian God to take a plural verb anywhere. Even Irish atheists are unanimous that he doesn’t exist.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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