Is the crew plural? Collective complications

Speaking of Oliver Sacks, I recently read his book The Island of the Colour-blind and Cycad Island (Picador, 1996). Like all his work, it’s a real treat. But one grammar-related item caught my copy-editor’s eye and is worth examining briefly.

En route to Micronesia, Sacks’s plane lands on Johnston atoll, a heavily militarised mini-island then used to store and test nuclear and chemical weapons. A rough landing damages the craft’s tyres, which need repairing. When the passengers go to stretch their legs in the interval, they are told the island is off-limits. Sacks reads and observes while he waits:

The crew members themselves, it seemed to me, grew more uneasy and restless by the minute; they could hardly wait, I thought, to shut the door and take off again.

But the ground crew was still trying to repair our damaged wheels; they were dressed in shiny, aluminized suits, presumably to minimize skin contact with the toxic air.

Some of the most common errors I fix as a copy editor and proofreader concern grammatical agreement, also known as concord. As I wrote in a 2015 post on false syntactic attraction: ‘Complications arise and mistakes slip in even when the numbers involved seem obvious.’ So it is here.

Crew is a noun of multitude. It looks singular but feels plural, because we know it consists of multiple parties: that’s why it often collocates with member. So while crew refers invariably to a plurality (in the sense of being plural), its grammar is more ambiguous: We can say the crew is ready or the crew are ready. Both are fine, grammatically – it’s a matter of style, preference, or emphasis.

The ambiguity lays a trap, however, because inconsistency or incongruence can sneak in. Sacks, in the first line quoted, refers to crew members, an explicitly plural phrase; he then uses they to refer back to it. So far, so good.

The problem is in line 2, where, referring to a different group, he says the crew was still trying to repair the wheels and that they were dressed in aluminium. It’s a jarring switch to plural reference. The intervening plural noun wheels may also confuse readers momentarily about the antecedent of they. Changing was to were would ameliorate this.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the crew was. But the choice of verb sets the noun as singular in the reader’s mind, which then has to undo and redirect that synaptic pulse when it gets to they. So at the very least it’s poor style, or an editorial oversight. It’s also a useful example of how tricky grammatical agreement can be even for native speakers and language professionals.

For more on this, click the links above, and see my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog on formal vs. notional agreement and there is vs. there are.

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23 Responses to Is the crew plural? Collective complications

  1. Crew, committee, panel, gang, etc, are singular words that refer to a group.
    In many instances, I would treat ‘crew’ as singular but if one expressly uses ‘crew members’ or committee members’ this automatically refers to plural.’

  2. Edward Vanderpump says:

    Do many writers, in this globalised world, increasingly feel they have to agree with American usage?

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t know; it’s not something I’ve ever asked anyone. But if and when it exists I’d say it’s more likely to be an unconscious tendency than a conscious choice arising from any feeling of obligation.

    • No.
      I am from southern Afrika and we use the British system under which we were educated. The American usage is a tad strange to me.

  3. John Cowan says:

    As far as I know, with the exceptions of sports teams and the Government (of wherever), it seems to me that BrE can always have formal agreement, it’s just that AmE insists on it, with a few exceptions like family.

    In this case, though, the crew jointly tries to repair the plane, whereas it severally wears suits (each wears one suit). So the problem is not really conflicting agreement, it’s that the antecedent of they, namely the crew members, isn’t actually expressed anywhere. The appearance of this phrase in the first sentence is a red herring, because that refers to the flight crew, not the ground crew.

    • Stan Carey says:

      A distinction often and, I think, normally observed in BrE is that sports teams are plural in general reference but singular in business contexts: the former connotes the players, the latter the corporate entity. So you’d say Liverpool were beaten but Liverpool was bought (or were, but usually was).

      I take your point about the ground crew working jointly, but I still think were would have been the better choice. It’s not more important to stress their collectiveness than it is to avoid distracting the reader with a clash between ‘the crew was’ and ‘they were’ in the same sentence.

      • Liz says:

        I had never noticed this distinction, Stan. Corpus partly bears you out on plural ‘beaten’: no lines for ‘Liverpool was beaten’, 13 for ‘were’; 18 for ‘Chelsea were’, 4 for ‘was’. But evidence on the other use is less clearcut (and scantier): 2 for Chelsea was bought, 0 for was bought, but 1 citation each for Manchester City was/were bought. Needs further investigation…

        • Stan Carey says:

          Thanks for the data, Liz. It’s not a hard-and-fast distinction but more a pattern I’ve noticed. Bought may not have been the best verb to use as an example of the singular use. As you say, it needs more investigation.

  4. I was just talking about this with a colleague today. In Irish, the tendency seems to be to use plurals with these nouns – certainly this is the pattern with Biblical phrases like ‘lucht an oilc.’

  5. azzurosky says:

    I recall discussing this issue with some (mostly Australian) school teachers, who were all adamant that collective nouns should always take take the singular, and were impervious to any explanation about a more nuanced usage taking into account plurality and singularity. One of the teachers said that she knew it had to be singular because she’d been to an English grammar school where they prided themselves on using correct English. Ironically, she regarded the more flexible usage as a loose Americanism.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Oh dear. People can get very set in their ways about these things, and if they’re teachers I’m sure they did their best to pass on the One Right Way dogma to another generation.

  6. astraya says:

    I’ve got no problem with eg ‘The team was lined up on the field. They were wearing black armbands in memory of …’.

    The crew was/were cropped up in a test. The official answer was (one of them), but I gave a mark for (the other) – I can’t remember which way around.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a helpful example, though it’s easier to accept the numerical discrepancy when it’s split over two sentences. Sacks’s occurs within one, which is part of why it clashes..

      • astraya says:

        The textbook I am using now has just had a recap of countable and uncountable nouns, and says ‘Crew, police, staff, etc. are collective nouns and refer to a group of people. You can use a singular or plural verb with these, except police, which needs a plural verb.’

        • Stan Carey says:

          Thanks for quoting it here. I think they’re more usually referred to as collective nouns than as nouns of multitude, but I prefer the latter because I think of collective nouns more as ‘murder of crows’ and so on. Police is occasionally used in the singular, but I agree that it’s preferable in the plural.

  7. Irene says:

    I do it the easy way. If I’m referring to the [multitude] as a whole, I use the singular – “The crowd was booing the referee”. If I’m referring to the [multitude] as a lot of individuals, I use the plural – see Astraya’s example above.

    Aside: as a former teacher of Mathematics, which I taught as a language, I always stressed that there were many ways of arriving at a solution (not a single right way), all of which were valid if they could be logically justified. My English teacher taught me that.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s more or less how I look at it too. But people perceive situations differently, so there’s often a subjective element. For example, I would be more inclined to say the crowd were booing the referee.

      It’s true that there are typically many acceptable ways to reach a solution in both maths and English, but logic only gets you so far in the latter.

      • azzurosky says:

        My English grammar school-attending acquaintance used mathematics to explain that it’s wrong to say “a number of the crew are missing”. It should be “a number of the crew is missing”, because “a number” is singular. She reckoned that the arithmetic of the situation made it an open and shut case. No amount of analysis, or appeals to knowledgeable authority could budge her on this matter.

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