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Grammatically Speaking, March 2007

Dear Richard,

When in doubt, write the grammar guy! So glad you're there to help us all.

Have you noticed within the last month that newscasters all seem to be using the collective noun with a plural verb? The team were . . . His crew were working on . . . It seems to be consistent across networks. I've heard it several times in the last week. Something I missed?

Thanks again for your expertise and your willingness to share it.

Jessie McGuire 
Westbury, NY USA

Hi, Jessie.

I'd like to thank you for the kudos. I'm very glad you like the column.

In answer to your question, it's a matter of perspective. British English (BrE) tends to use collective nouns with third-person plural verb forms more than American English (AmE) does, but it's becoming more common to hear it on both sides of the Pond. In a way, the BrE is more consistent than AmE. AmE hasthe police are and people are, and it's not so unusual to hear the singular or plural verb form after family. When talking about the family as a group of individuals, AmE tends to use the plural verb form; when thinking of the family as a whole unit, AmE uses the singular verb form.

AmE and BrE mess things up a bit (even though it's becoming quite acceptable) when they consider a plural loan word singular, as in the media is and the data is. They really should be the media are and the data are. At any rate, it's become acceptable to use words like media and data followed by the singular verb form. I'm of the old school and remember that those words are really plurals, but when a majority of educated native speakers use these changes even in writing, I have to accept those changes as options.

Thanks for your question, Jessie.

Dear Richard,

One of my students said, "I'm sorry to come late," which sounds odd to me. However, I can't really explain why. I wonder if it has anything to do with the action come late. It seems that the following are OK: I'm sorry to say . . . /I'm sorry to disturb you . . .

The actions of saying and disturbing take place at the time the sentence is uttered, whereas the action come late is already in the past. It would be more natural to say: I'm sorry to have come late. / I'm sorry I came late. Am I on the right track here?

Thank you in advance for your help.

Best regards,

Viss Vanit
Bangkok, Thailand

Dear Viss,

You've made my task very easy! You did a great job of figuring out why your student's utterance didn't sound right. In a phrase like I'm sorry, you can express regret about a previous action by using the perfect infinitive (to have come . . .) or another clause (that I came . . .).

When you use the infinitive after a phrase like I'm sorry, you refer to something that's concurrent (I'm sorry to bother you, but . . .), or something in general (I'm sorry to be a pest all the time, but . . .) or in the immediate future (I'm sorry to see him retire next month).

Thanks very much, Viss, for a point of grammar that's rarely discussed.

Dear Mr. Firsten:

An advanced-level student of mine asked me if there are verbs besides wish that can force the use of the subjunctive. She's learned to use the subjunctive after wish in sentences like I wish I knew the answer, so that's why she asked me about other verbs that can do the same thing. The problem is, I couldn't come up with any. Can you? Thanks for helping us out.

Alejandro Pedrosa
Córdoba, Argentina

Dear Mr. Pedrosa:

Other verbs I can come up with that will force the use of the subjunctive the same way that wish does are suppose, imagine, and say--as long as they're used in the imperative or have Let's before them. These verbs will set up a hypothetical situation that needs the subjunctive mood. Here's an example for each:

Suppose you were president. How would you do things differently?
Imagine (that) you had a twin brother. Would that change your life?
Say you didn't have a job now. Could you pay your rent?

Thanks for a great question, Mr. Pedrosa!

I would like to add something to the answer I gave Meg Duvall of St. Petersburg, Florida, USA, in my December 2006 column. Meg had asked how to identify the role of headed in the phrase to be headed for.

In my reply, I said that "headed for can be viewed as an adjectival phrase in that it will describe a person or thing." I want to make it clear that I was not saying headed is an adjective but simply that it is used adjectivally.

The name for this phenomenon is the statal passive. It's a form used most often with intransitive verbs of motion or completion. Statal passives deal with states of being or results and, strangely enough, they're actually active rather than passive in meaning since there's no hidden agent. In addition, there's no way to change them into the active voice.

Other commonly heard examples are They're gone and I'm finished.

Brain Teaser

Here's the Brain Teaser from my December 2006 column:

Look at these phrases:

a pair of pants
a cup of coffee

Are these possessive forms, or aren't they? Is the same thing going on in both phrases, or isn't it?

The first acceptable answer was sent in by Gail Sepúlveda of Monterrey, Mexico:

The name that I know for this use of of is the partitive genitive. It is not a possessive form at all. There are different uses for the partitive genitive. In your first example, a pair of pants, you are simply showing something that normally comes in pairs or sets. In your second example, a cup of coffee,you are showing a measurement, how much coffee. The partitive genitive is also used when one thing is part of another, such as the front door of my house.

Thank you for sending in such a concise, clear answer, Gail! I'd like to add that one area where ESOL students get confused is how to use of in phrases that native speakers would not normally use it in. For example, native speakers wouldn't say the radio of the car; they'd say the car radio. That's because they're saying not that the radio is a part of the car, per se, but where the radio is located. In this kind of phrase, native speakers normally create noun adjuncts or compound nouns.

And now for a new Brain Teaser:

English teachers normally teach the two prepositions since and for when tackling the present perfect, but there are occasions when the preposition inis likely to be used and not the other two. So my question to you is, when is it possible to use in in a sentence with the present perfect?

Please e-mail your responses to, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten
c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center
750 NW 20th Street
Miami, FL 33127 USA

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