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  1. #1
    Just Another Philistine Hereford Eye's Avatar
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    Rules Versus Aesthetics

    In American English, collective nouns are nearly always treated as singular. They emphasize the group as a unit. Occasionally, when there is some reason to draw attention to the individual members of the group, a collective noun may be treated as plural.
    Singular: The class respects the teacher.
    Plural: The class are debating among themselves.

    Rules for Writers, Fourth Edition, Diana Hacker, Bedford-St. Martins, 2000

    Ah, but sound must play a role; mustn't it? The problem began buzzing in my head while reading a novel, The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers, translated from the German by John Brownjohn. The sentence reads: And rocks were all there was; nothing – not a single living creature; not even a plant – obtruded its presence on the pure geology.

    My sense of right and wrong, correct and incorrect usage, began shrilling its alarm. Shouldn't that read “rocks were all there were...”? Say it out loud. Rocks was. Rocks were. It must be the latter. It simply must. Yet, the rules say nay. Surely, this must constitute an instance where the rules are no more than guidelines, where the writer's instinct for the written word takes precedence.

  2. #2
    There was refers to all - and all is in this case singular.
    Igor

  3. #3
    bingley bingley beep kissmequick's Avatar
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    Are you sure the book has been translated into US English? Because the rules for collective nouns are different in the UK* (and I think the translator is a Brit).


    *though still fairly confusing to me!

    From wiki:
    In British English, it is generally accepted that collective nouns can take either singular or plural verb forms depending on the context and the metonymic shift that it implies. For example, "the team is in the dressing room" (formal agreement) refers to the team as an ensemble, whilst "the team are fighting among themselves" (notional agreement) refers to the team as individuals.

  4. #4
    aka. Stephen B5 Jones MrBF1V3's Avatar
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    There are as many exceptions are there are rules. Since this is a living language the rules can change.

    'Was' goes with 'there', saying, 'there was rocks', giving past tense continuous. 'Were' goes with 'rocks', thus, 'rocks were all' giving you a state of being.

    No, that doesn't work either.

    Maybe it's a cast of style. It would sound wrong to say 'The rocks were all there were..." Too many 'were's in one sentence.

    B5

  5. #5
    Just Another Philistine Hereford Eye's Avatar
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    Further pondering leads me to conclude the sentence Rocks were all there was." is correct and I have no problem with it. It has the plural noun 'rocks' identified with 'were' and the collective noun 'all' with 'was'; ergo, plural with plural and singular with singular.

    The issue I had remains. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the EUFA championships this year; that is one marvelous sport. However, the announcers were somewhat less enjoyable. They had this irritating habit of making statements such as "England were more than equal to the task." Now, that unquestionably follows the rules but it sounds...well, it sounds wrong! I suppose that is what prompted my post, my dissatisfaction with the rules. Just as my quote from Diana Hacker's tome in the first post demonstrates the same wrongness: "the class are debating of among themselves." That sounds as if her patronym is an accurate assessment of her rules.

  6. #6
    Edited for submission Holbrook's Avatar
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    Why the of in, "the class are debating of among themselves." To me it reads better without. i.e the class are debating among themselves. Same goes for were and was. I tend to go with how it sounds when read and does it feel right to me. (Hol, hopeless at rules of any kind)

  7. #7
    Just Another Philistine Hereford Eye's Avatar
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    Why the of in, "the class are debating of among themselves."
    The very detailed technical explanation is that, as you are all too well aware, I rarely proofread anything.

  8. #8
    Just Another Philistine Hereford Eye's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Holbrook
    Why the of in, "the class are debating of among themselves."
    The very detailed technical explanation is that, as you are all too well aware, I rarely proofread anything.

  9. #9
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hereford Eye View Post
    The issue I had remains. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the EUFA championships this year; that is one marvelous sport. However, the announcers were somewhat less enjoyable. They had this irritating habit of making statements such as "England were more than equal to the task." Now, that unquestionably follows the rules but it sounds...well, it sounds wrong! I suppose that is what prompted my post, my dissatisfaction with the rules. Just as my quote from Diana Hacker's tome in the first post demonstrates the same wrongness: "the class are debating of among themselves." That sounds as if her patronym is an accurate assessment of her rules.
    I'm confused. Ms. Hacker says that in America collective nouns are nearly always treated singular, but there are exceptions. I don't expect EUFA commentators to use American English; collective + plural is more common in British English. If it sounds wrong to you, it might be your American ear. So what you seem to be taking exception to seems to be not so much the rule as the exceptions to the rule.

    "The class are debating among themselves," is an interesting example, though. If it sounds wrong, what would you say is the "right" version?

    Here's what I can come up with, without re-writing the sentence:

    1. The class are debating among themselves.
    2. The class is debating among itself.
    3. The class is debating among themselves.
    ETA:
    4. The class is debating among themself.


    (1) is by fare my favourite version. (But then I lean towards British English, anyway [although I'm not a native speaker and American English is still a big enough influence on my casual style to be noticable].)
    Last edited by Dawnstorm; November 17th, 2012 at 07:27 PM.

  10. #10
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    HE -- you keep taking formats for grammar -- which as you yourself note, vary somewhat over time and from country to country because they are actually formats even though they like to call them rules -- for expository, non-fiction writing, and insisting that they must also be rules of creative writing -- fiction and poetry, and then chafe against those non-existent fiction rules. As we have gone over and over, there are no rules in fiction writing, including standardized (but still changeable) formats of grammar and spelling.

    Fiction writing is indeed greatly effected and run by sound -- the sound of whole paragraphs, of sentences structured one way or another, the sound of words, the sounds of syllables. That's why fiction will have sentence fragments. It will have dangling participles, run on sentences, graphs inserted into bodies of text if you're doing something funky, switching tenses, etc. and on and on. Standardized formats of grammar are useful to know as a tool for figuring out how you're going to use language in fiction. But you're not trying to communicate through a business memo and no one ties fiction to a grammar test. Individual editors may have pet grammar peeves or concerns about clarity that may come up for discussion in developing a work, and copyeditors will use a standardized grammar to look for errors, but if the author says leave it in, it stays in. And copy-editors do not correct sentence fragments and the like in fiction -- not if they are good copy-editors. Publishers have no interest in policing author grammar (even in non-fiction really.)

    Fiction scholars mostly study grammar to see the cultural changes and shifts that occur in language and make those interesting sounds and images; not to try and scour a fiction author as awful for not following whatever modern standardized format may be used in schools to teach children or newspapers to keep their articles all on the same format and the like. Standardized formats, especially spelling, are necessary in business and non-fiction communication for efficiency, although they are extremely flexible, especially for English. It's a critical component of childhood education in order for children to understand how language is used. And whole new grammars emerge for English -- texting grammars, twitter grammars (hashtags!) There's a reason that the Oxford English Dictionary has to keep adding new words.

    In fiction, no one cares unless they have their own personal pet peeves about how language is used. Railing about a standardized grammar that you're not actually being judged against in your fiction seems to me to be only an issue if you run into someone who is obsessed with grammar and has not studied a great deal of poetry.

    That aside, I personally think "England were more than able to the task" sounds excellent as a sound. But I might do that sentence any number of ways depending on the character/narrative voice:

    England had it to the task alright.
    Those England, those happy few, who conquered all in its light.
    Those English players really brought its game.
    Union Jack and Bob's your uncle!
    Gooooaaaaal!

    It's a word frenzy, they is.
    Last edited by KatG; November 17th, 2012 at 11:57 PM.

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