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August 06, 2009

Collective Nouns: Here Yesterday, Gone Tomorrow?

Avatar 7 By Chuck



“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.”
“The dog did nothing in the nighttime.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
                                —Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze”

If you were of a mind to compare, chapter by chapter and line by line, the new sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association against the fifth edition that it replaces, you would notice not only a number of additions in the sixth but also some deletions from what had been in the fifth.

For instance, here is what the fifth edition had to say regarding collective nouns:

Collective nouns (e.g., series, set, faculty, or pair) can refer either to several individuals or to a single unit. If the action of the verb is on the group as a whole, treat the noun as a singular noun. If the action of the verb is on members of the group as individuals, treat the noun as a plural noun. The context (i.e., your emphasis) determines whether the action is on the group or on individuals. (5th ed., 2001, p. 45)

Following this were several examples, for instance, “The number of people in the state is growing”—“A number of people were watching” and “The couple is surrounded”—“The couple are separated” (5th ed., 2001, p. 45).

Next, here is what the sixth edition has to say about collective nouns:


That’s right: nothing. Nothing at all. Does the removal of these guidelines betoken an age of grammatical and syntactical chaos a-borning? Can you or I now use any verb, singular or plural, with any noun, plural or singular?

I’m afraid not. The advice given in the fifth edition was basic grammar and can easily be found elsewhere. Referring to my own bookshelf, I find the same instruction given in William W. Watt’s An American Rhetoric (1980), at page 307, and in the discussion of collective nouns in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1995, p. 157). Watt concentrates on American usage, whereas Fowler leans more heavily toward British, but the overall approach bridges the Atlantic.

I imagine then that the sixth edition is intended to be more tightly focused on psychology-centric usage. To that end, it has been divested here of some universally true grammatical advice. You can learn about collective nouns from any standard handbook. The Publication Manual is evolving to feature more and more information that is uniquely pertinent to psychological science and psychological writing (albeit useful to other academic and professional disciplines). This information, which cannot be had in more generic writing guidebooks, is the meat and potatoes of the Publication Manual. Bon appétit!



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