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.