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March 24, 2006 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Collective noun usage: "The Decemberists are a band," or "The Decemberists is a band?"

While I wait for my blockage from wikipedia to expire, I'd like to get some other opinions on this. I'm familiar with the American Heritage entry on collective nouns. My take is that the name "The Decemberists" nearly always refers to the individual members of the band, therefore it should take a plural verb. The Decemberists' official site seems to agree, as there are several examples of an individual band member being referred to as a Decemberist. I think "The Decemberists is" sounds incredibly awkward, and most of the internet seems to agree, as a google search for "The Decemberists are" returns 21,300 results, while a search for "The Decemberists is" returns 629. But at that point it's sort of the old prescriptivism vs. descriptivism debate. Still, I argue that when the disparity in usage is so large, descriptivism is the more reasonable choice.

The opposing argument seems to be that "The Decemberists" is a band, which is a single entity, and so it requires a single verb.

Which would you use?
posted by ludwig_van to Writing & Language (30 answers total)
 
Plural, it is not uncommon for band names to end in plurality (Beatles, Rolling Stones). Beatles invade America, not Beatles invades America.
posted by geoff. at 10:47 AM on March 24, 2006


"Are" sounds right. I think that it is safe to conclude that "The Decemberists" itself indicates plurality and membership. If you invert the situation, you would not say "I am a Decemberists".

The Pink Floyd is a band, the Beatles are a band.

The Decemberists are a really good band, btw.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:53 AM on March 24, 2006


The only real grammatical sin is having a tin ear. 'The Decemberists is...' sounds awful.

Somewhat related is the difference between British and American usage for collective nouns, like 'government'.
In American English it's 'The government is...'
That works in standard British English too, but 'The government are...' is also ok.
posted by atrazine at 10:55 AM on March 24, 2006


My vote is that plural names (like your and goeff's examples) should take a plural verb. But non-plural band names (N*Sync, Jane's Addiction, Pearl Jam) should be singular. I see these as plural occasionally and it drives me nuts.

To recap: The Decemberists are a band. Pearl Jam is a band. ludwig_van is a-banned from Wikipedia. sorry.
posted by SuperNova at 10:55 AM on March 24, 2006


I think this is a British English vs. American English thing. "The band were really good tonight" sounds weird to me, and "the crowd were happy with the performance" sounds bizarre, but I can see the reasoning behind it.
posted by interrobang at 10:56 AM on March 24, 2006


It depends on whether or not you want to emphasize the noun as a group of individuals or as a collective. That said, generally you go with what sounds better in cases such as this. If it sounds too far off, then go with what sounds right.
posted by synecdoche at 10:57 AM on March 24, 2006


The Decemberists are a band. Pearl Jam is a band. ludwig_van is a-banned from Wikipedia.

(rimshot)
posted by ludwig_van at 10:57 AM on March 24, 2006


I do some occasional writing for a Canadian music magazine/website, and the style there is to ALWAYS treat a band as plural. The Rolling Stones are, U2 are, Korn are, etc, etc, etc. Even when you don't refer to the name of the band, you say "the band are" instead of "the band is." You're referring to the band as a group of individuals, not as a singular entity in its own right.

It's never made complete grammatical sense to me, but that's the way it's done, at least in this case.
posted by yellowbinder at 10:58 AM on March 24, 2006


Ah, but you would say "the best band in the world is the Decemberists," not "the best band in the world are the Decemberists." Wouldn't you?

I think it "sounds wrong" depending on whether the noun coming before the verb is singular or plural, but I don't know whether the actual rules of grammar change.

When you say "The Decemberists are a band" I think it makes sense because your brain interprets it as, literally, a group of individual "Decemberists" who come together form a band. You'd never say "Interpol are a band" (unless you work for a Canadian magazine, that is).

Rock stars are rocking, the rock band is rocking.
posted by designbot at 11:02 AM on March 24, 2006


Also, to prevent this from being a big agreement-fest, if anyone has any idea about the best way to argue this with the aim of changing someone's mind, that would be helpful, too.

Of course, the easiest thing for me would be to not give a shit and just never look at The Decemberists wikipedia entry again, but come on, you guys know how it is. I suppose I don't want bands I like to have wikipedia entries which reflect poorly of them and their fanbases. That's the ticket.

On preview:

Ah, but you would say "the best band in the world is the Decemberists," not "the best band in the world are the Decemberists." Wouldn't you?

Hm, I suppose so. I think what it comes down to may be a slight variance in the usage of the word "band." When I say "The Decemberists are a good band," it's like saying "your friends are a no-good band of scallywags." Band in this sense has more of a connotation of a group of distinct individuals. However, the sentence "The best band in the world is the Decemberists" presupposes a concept of band which implies a unified whole. Perhaps?
posted by ludwig_van at 11:07 AM on March 24, 2006




zsazsa, I read both of those threads when they were first posted and again before I posted this thread, but I don't see what they have to say about this particular question. Or were you just adding them as a general reference?
posted by ludwig_van at 11:11 AM on March 24, 2006


Yes, this is a US/Brit divide (with exceptions on both sides). Either can be correct. I wouldn't spend too much time worrying about it on a collectively edited site. (Wikipedia, I mean, not Metafilter, though truthfully I wouldn't worry all that much about it here either.)
posted by occhiblu at 11:11 AM on March 24, 2006


Ah, but you would say "the best band in the world is the Decemberists," not "the best band in the world are the Decemberists." Wouldn't you?

Yes, but in this case the "is" refers to "the best band", which is singular. My interpretation, at least.
posted by howling fantods at 11:12 AM on March 24, 2006


And as for this:

Ah, but you would say "the best band in the world is the Decemberists," not "the best band in the world are the Decemberists." Wouldn't you?

Yes, because the subject of that sentence is "band." It has nothing to do with the grammatical question at hand.

Or, on preview, what howling fantods said.
posted by occhiblu at 11:14 AM on March 24, 2006


I have an old Mogwai t-shirt that simply says 'Blur: are shite.'
posted by glibhamdreck at 11:18 AM on March 24, 2006


Descriptive linguistics as opposed to prescriptive linguistics.
posted by edgeways at 11:21 AM on March 24, 2006


I think it's more like asking whether "My favorite color is gray" or "My favourite colour is grey" is correct for use on a cross-continental website written and edited by members in the US, UK, and Canada (and probably English-speaking people elsewhere). You change it to the American version, some English dude's going to come along and change it to the British version, you change it back, he changes it back, ad nauseum.

If it were a single author piece you'd at least want it consisent throughout, but it's not, so it just doesn't seem worth worrying about.
posted by occhiblu at 11:30 AM on March 24, 2006


You could send an email to the band itself, and see what they prefer. They are a literary, well-read bunch of folks. They might have actually discussed this among themselves. :)
posted by luneray at 11:32 AM on March 24, 2006


I think it's more like asking whether "My favorite color is gray" or "My favourite colour is grey" is correct for use on a cross-continental website written and edited by members in the US, UK, and Canada

Except I'm American, and while "The Decemberists are" seems to be considered a traditionally British usage, I think it sounds far better and is preferable for the logical reasons stated at the beginning of this post. Do you really think that the two are as interchangeable as grey and gray?
posted by ludwig_van at 11:33 AM on March 24, 2006


A mass noun...is one that denotes something uncountable, either because it is abstract...or because it refers to an indeterminate aggregation of people or things. As the subject of a sentence, a mass noun usually takes a singular verb. But in a collective sense, it may take either a singular or a plural verb form. A singular verb emphasizes the group; a plural verb emphasizes the individual members. If a collective noun appears throughout a piece of writing, use one verb form consistently. - Chicago Manual of Style, Section 5.8
posted by lunalaguna at 11:35 AM on March 24, 2006


I'm completely retracting my objections. Sorry. High horse got in the way of sense and careful reading.

Here's your justification.
Proper nouns which are plural in form take a plural verb in both American and British English.

Go with "are."
posted by occhiblu at 11:39 AM on March 24, 2006


Yeah, this has nothing to do with the UK/US split (that would be relevant for the band is/are); it's just a matter of plural subject, like occhibiu just said.
posted by languagehat at 11:47 AM on March 24, 2006


It's definitely a UK/USA issue. But strangely, Australia, where I live, follows US usage.

When I first heard someone say "U2 is a great band" it threw me completely ... and then I noticed they were using the singular too!

yellowbinder has an interesting point -- he works for an organisation which has solved the dispute with a house style.

That's the point of house styles, they cut short debates about "right and wrong" when the question is really one of usage.

So -- does Wikipedia have house style(s)? Even if you don't like "The band is", if it's house style at least you know why it's being used.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:23 PM on March 24, 2006


The Decemberist are a really good band, however, the Decemberists is a really crap name for a band.
posted by Sparx at 4:23 PM on March 24, 2006


I agree with Egdewise - native speakers' intuition is the deciding factor. I'm a US native, and I can't imagine anyone saying "The Decemberists is..."

The US-UK issue only applies to singular nouns: for example, my instinct is to say, "Manchester United wins..." whereas Brits say "Manchester United win...". However, there is no disagreement between American and British English over names of teams/bands/etc. that are already plural, such as 'The Decemberists', so it's not really relevant here.

The issue is basically that proper names which are also collective nouns are sometimes interpreted as being plural (in the UK) and sometimes as singluar (in the US); however, when the name itself is already plural, this overrides the rule in American English which otherwise treats them as singular.

(Lunalaguna is right - mass nouns are things like 'time', 'sunshine', and 'wrath', and are hence completely unrelated to the current discussion.)
posted by xanthippe at 12:36 PM on March 27, 2006


"The Decemberists" nearly always refers to the individual members of the band, therefore it should take a plural verb

That's true only for British English; in the US, "The Decemberists" refers to the band/team/group itself as a single entity - hence the split discussed above. This rule is more basic, but another rule that says "use plural anyways if the name of the group ends in a plural noun" gets applied afterwards; that's why we see a mix of "[name of band] is" and "[name of band] are" in the US.

The people responsible for those 629 Google hits for "The Decemberists is..." have probably just been thinking about the same question too hard, and confused themselves out of applying both rules sequentially. (There's a term for this in developmental linguistics - when children say "I goed to the store" when they first realize that most verbs aren't irregular and overapply the new -ed rule, temporarily forgetting that the correct form is "went".)
posted by xanthippe at 1:02 PM on March 27, 2006


You're right xanthippe. As pointed out in occhbliu's wikipedia link:

Proper nouns which are plural in form take a plural verb in both American and British English. Examples:

British English: "The Clash are a well-known band."
American English: "The Clash is a well-known band."
Both: "The Beatles are a well-known band."

posted by ludwig_van at 5:43 AM on March 29, 2006


The people responsible for those 629 Google hits for "The Decemberists is..." have probably just been thinking about the same question too hard, and confused themselves out of applying both rules sequentially.

I wouldn't rule out a possible ESL influence, either. In Dutch, for example, band names are grammatically treated as singular entities, I believe, and perhaps ESL writers who speak that language or another natively are simply carrying this trait over from their mother tongue.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 2:39 PM on April 2, 2006


Also, if you look through the results for "The Decemberists is," lots of them are things like "Her Majesty The Decemberists is a great record."

Plus I won the wikipedia argument, so it's all rather moot now, anyway. Heh.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:49 PM on April 2, 2006


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