What Is a Collective Noun?
I am sure of one thing: Amid the styrofoam cups and peanut shells in the Star Trek Writers Room, the writers wrestled with one problem more than any other: Is Borg singular or plural?
Matching collective nouns with verbs and pronouns might be the most frustrating of all grammatical issues—mostly because we have no clear answer. One authority calls collective nouns “a continuing source of perplexity.” Another calls collective nouns and how we treat them, “more oddities of English grammar.” And not one authority I can find has a definitive statement on how to corral this problem, where two lines of logic intersect.
Here's the problem: Collective nouns are singular “in form” but either singular or plural “in concept”—team, troop, family, jury, committee, crowd, tribe, and about 200 others—but we have to match them in number to verbs and pronouns: is/are, goes/go, its/their.
Probably the most confounding collective noun in the English language is Borg, that/those interstellar villain/villains, that cruises/cruise the Alpha Quadrant and gobbles/gobble up protoplasm in Star Trek. Borg is/are billions of drones with bio-chips implanted in its/their brain/brains to link it/them to the “Collective Consciousness.” When scanned, “hive-mind” drones register as one, and it/they never says/say “I” or “we.” That’s because it/they is/are brainwashed.
You can see the difficulty of trying to match the number of a verb or a pronoun to one evil collective brain with a mouth the size of Jupiter, but composed of billions of interconnected drones. I can hear rabid debates between two Star Trek writers over whether Commander Riker rushes to the bridge and shouts, “The Borg has assimilated Captain Picard!” Or, “The Borg have assimilated Captain Picard!”
The same applies to team. One team, but many players. Do we match it to singular verbs and pronouns or plural? The British decided to treat collective nouns as plural and give them plural verbs: the team were, the government say, the Borg devour. In America, we decided to treat them as singular and give them singular verbs: the team was, the government says, the Borg devours—proving once again that we no longer have to bow to the Queen.
When grammarians get together to plot how to confuse the rest of us and end up confusing themselves, they often play the “Do what sounds best” card, or the “It depends” card. The card they play with collective nouns reads: “What the writer has in mind should be the controlling factor,” one of the more confusing statements about grammar. How do we know what the writer has in mind?
Mid-twentieth-century grammarian Margaret Bryant wrote, “If a group of words . . . creates one conception in the mind of the person using them as a subject, a singular verb follows. In Modern English where there is a conflict between form and meaning, meaning tends to triumph.” That means that no matter what we write, we’re probably correct as long as we were sincere when we wrote it.
In A Writer’s Reference, Diana Hacker narrows the rule a bit: “If the group functions as a unit, treat the noun as singular; if the members of the group function individually, treat the noun as plural.” That’s not always clear, but as the Forces of Singularity battle the Forces of Plurality here on Earth, we usually can discern the logic she proposes and write accordingly:
The team enter/enters the stadium.
The British would write enter, but in America, despite the team comprising 18 players, we would write enters because all those players function as a unit when entering. But when we write:
The team stretch/stretches on the field.
we know the players function individually, eighteen of them, so stretch would be correct. Which brings us to an excellent point: Rather than trying to determine who is functioning as what, use a word that describes one of the collective: members, players, jurors, people, soldiers, students, drones.
The players stretch on the field.
One thing grammarians sing as a single chorus: Within the sentence, be consistent. If you use a singular verb with a collective noun, then use a singular pronoun:
The young team hopes to at least score in their its opening match.
Two special cases: Treat bands and branded sports teams, even those with singular names, as plural—Lady Antebellum/Orlando Magic are—unless referring to a team by location only; then make it singular—Orlando/Chicago/San Francisco is. I can't imagine that the edge of arcane stretches any farther than this.
I’m still not sure what to tell Captain Picard when suddenly on the bridge appear/appears Borg. But because one is over here and another over there, I assume there are two in the room, and even in 2373, one and one still make two, which is plural. But wait! Both drones are wired into the Collective, which is singular. What to do? Does he exclaim, “Abandon ship! Borg has breached security!” Or, "All hands on deck! Borg are storming the bridge!" These are tough questions. And resistance is futile.