After a hesitant start I’m now fully grappling with the book’s edited draft. Daily I toil away at the monitor-face, chipping and chopping and chiselling to make all the necessary alterations and improvements. Taking a break to rattle off a breezy blog is light relief in comparison – even a blog about writing itself.
A problem I’m coming up against time and time again as I crawl over the 350 pages is entirely grammatical and nothing to do with the content. It’s that age-old English language booby-trap, the collective noun. Would you say “Brains is a brewer” or “Brains are a brewer”? That’s a bad example actually, because the unapostrophied ‘s’ Brains utilises confuses the issue. Try this: would you say “Cardiff City is a football club” or “Cardiff City are a football club”? The question is whether a collective noun takes a singular or plural verb. The answer given by all known linguists (don’t say that after a skinful) is unequivocal: collective nouns take a singular verb. So Brains is a brewer and Cardiff City is a football club.
However, a sentence like “The Arms Park hosted its first rugby international in 1884, when Ireland were the visitors” sounds all wrong if you stick to the rule: “Ireland was the visitors”??? And what about a construction like “Anyone with any decency put a lot of distance between themselves and the Olympics, so naturally the WRU were straight in there, tongues lolling, offering their services”? I need the WRU to be plural to summon up the individuals in their blazers and I need the verb to be plural to match “put” – what to do for the best? In that example, the solution was easy – it was all axed (new! improved! sweetness-and-light Dic doesn’t wage rancour) – but that’s not the point.
And what happens when your collective noun is one that gathers items together, such as “group”, “range”, “choice”, “number”, etc, etc (there are a plethora, I mean there is a plethora, no I was right first time, or was I…)? Desperate for clarity, I hauled down the attic ladder, rooted around by torchlight for hours and eventually found what I needed – slightly moist, curling at the edges, pages sticking together, but intact. The bible of English grammar: my Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
Henry Fowler (1858-1933) wryly discusses collective nouns and their verbs and his non-prescriptive and pragmatic approach could be summed up as “rules are made to be broken” – especially if writing, as I try to, in an oral/lyric style reliant on tempo, sound-effects and rhythm (apropos of nothing at all, “rhythms” is the longest English word without a vowel in common use). In the end, Fowler leaves it up to you: “Nouns of multitude…are treated as singular or plural at discretion – and sometimes, naturally, without discretion.” That’s advice I can go with: now I’ve just got to sift through a document of 200,000 words and make sure it are consistent.