Agreement with Collective Nouns in English

University dissertation from Almqvist & Wiksell International, P.O. Box 7634, SE-103 94 STOCKHOLM, Sweden

Abstract: This thesis concerns agreement with collective nouns in American, British and Australian English. It is based on material from newspaper corpora and spoken corpora. The findings suggest that dialectal, stylistic, diachronic, syntactic and semantic factors interact in the selection of singular and plural agreement. It was shown that there are differences between regional varieties, between speech and writing and between written and spoken genres. Syntactic influence on agreement was seen in the increased likelihood of plural agreement with increased distance between the noun (the controller) and its agreement-carrying words (the targets). This was observed both in the number of intervening words between a controller and its targets and in the difference between verbs, which are fairly close to their controllers, and pronouns. This trend was found in both speech and writing. These findings suggest that targets acquire more independence of the form of their controllers the further away they are. Semantic factors were also found to be important in British English. The noun itself plays a crucial role in the choice of agreement. A noun such as 'government' very rarely takes singular verb agreement, whereas 'family' takes either singular or plural agreement, and 'couple' generally prefers the plural. A few verbs were found to require singular agreement with collective nouns (e.g. 'consist', 'be set up', 'increase'), but other verb categories (e.g. 'think', 'say', 'work') were not found to influence agreement decisively. These and other features described indicate that a wide range of functional factors influence variation in agreement patterns.

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