To Du or not to Du, and other questions

An Irishman’s Diary about the importance of verbal agreement

‘It turns out that even the ruthless logic of the US rule crumbles in the face of plural band names: eg the Rolling Stones. Here, as I’ve discovered, they too resort to plural verbs, for no good reason.  After all, the Rolling Stones are as much a corporate entity – in every sense – as U2. Yet suggesting that the Stones “is” embarking on another multi-million-dollar tour appears to be a piece of grammar too far.’ Photograph:  Ian Gavan/Getty Images

‘It turns out that even the ruthless logic of the US rule crumbles in the face of plural band names: eg the Rolling Stones. Here, as I’ve discovered, they too resort to plural verbs, for no good reason. After all, the Rolling Stones are as much a corporate entity – in every sense – as U2. Yet suggesting that the Stones “is” embarking on another multi-million-dollar tour appears to be a piece of grammar too far.’ Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Wed, Dec 18, 2013, 01:00

Bear with me, briefly, while I return to the subject (Irishman’s Diary, December 13th) of the American reader who argued that his compatriots were right in always treating collective nouns as single entities for verb purposes. For right they may well be. But I find on further digging that their record on this matter is not quite as consistent as he was letting on.

Yes, US sports writers always treat teams as individual entities, and therefore reported that Arsenal “was” still top of the English Premiership on Saturday night (despite playing like 11 unrelated units against Manchester City).

And, yes, this is also the American rule with bands. Most US journalists will insist that U2 recently parted company with “its” long-time manager, which sounds odd to Irish and British ears, accustomed to hearing “their” in such cases.

But it turns out that even the ruthless logic of the US rule crumbles in the face of plural band names: eg the Rolling Stones. Here, as I’ve discovered, they too resort to plural verbs, for no good reason.

After all, the Rolling Stones are as much a corporate entity – in every sense – as U2. Yet suggesting that the Stones “is” embarking on another multi-million-dollar tour appears to be a piece of grammar too far, even for the Wall Street Journal.

So if you’re still there, American reader, you can stop feeling smug about your nation’s supposed consistency on this issue right now. Clearly, the confusion over conjugating verbs for agreement with collective nouns is not confined to this side of the Atlantic. What we need is a mutually agreeable compromise.

To this end, I like the suggestion from another reader, Elizabeth Healy. The rule she was taught at school is that “when a group acts as one, it is singular, when it does not, it is plural”. Thus her examples: “The council is unanimous”, but “the council are divided”.

The choice may not always be as clear-cut as that. Even so, the main thing is to be consistent for the duration of any sentence, at least, something that seems beyond that capacity of many broadcasters.

If, at the start of a news headline, “the Government has decided” something, that same Government should not have become a plural entity by the end of the sentence, so that we are then told the decision was taken at “their” Cabinet meeting.

But no doubt there are occasions when even this level of consistency is not appropriate, as with juries. “The jury has returned with their verdict” might sound wrong to sensitive ears, until we hear that the members are split 10-2, when suddenly it summarises the situation very well.

Then there’s the thorny question of families: very topical around now. It can also be correct, as in an example cited by the lexicographer Eric Partridge, to say: “The family is well and send their regards”. That is: that family might be well as a unit, while wishing to send regards as individuals.

But there are problems with this too. For one thing, it implies different levels of regard which, however inevitable, is bound to worry the recipient. And besides, if family members are going to insist on their individuality, it looks mean if they only send one card.

Anyway, that’s my final word on the matter, I promise. But on a separate, if related, topic, I must also apologise to the German linguists among you for failing to capitalise the S in the word Sie recently, making it mean “she” instead of the formal “you”, which was my intention.

The point I was trying to make is that the lack of a formal/informal “you” in modern English, unlike tu/vous in French or du/Sie in German, is indirectly responsible for the lack of a dedicated second-person plural – also a cause of much confusion.

Then again, the abolition of the old thou/you distinction did at least spare us the pitfalls of deciding when and if it is appropriate to move a relationship from the formal-you pronoun to the informal, a fraught process in France and Germany.

I remember a story some years ago concerning Angela Merkel and her long-time party rival Edmund Stoiber. They had known each other for decades but were still awkwardly using the Sie form, until Stoiber very belatedly defused the situation, inviting Merkel to address him as du.

The point is that, despite being Chancellor, she couldn’t make the first move because she was a) younger and b) a woman. As a German etiquette expert explained at the time, a woman initiating the familiar form of address often risked unintended “erotic connotations”. Whereas Mr Stoiber could ask Mrs Merkel to “du him”, as it were, and there was no danger of misunderstandings.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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