AE/BE -- terms of plurality

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Rabelaisian

Senior Member
English - Canadian
How do you decide whether you want to use the American style of dealing with plural terms, or the British style? Does one use the latter when they want a more personal feeling directed at the individuals that make up the plurality? For example, writing, "It is the army of Sparta that are destined to win" (British) vs. "It is the army of Sparta that is destined to win" (American). Both ways can be used, but I'd like to think that there's more to it than whether the writer or editor is American or not.

Thanks.
 
  • Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    How do you decide whether you want to use the American style of dealing with plural terms, or the British style? Does one use the latter when they want a more personal feeling directed at the individuals that make up the plurality?
    My advice is to pick the version of English you wish to speak/write and stick with the rules for that version. We don't normally switch between American and British English for any particular effect (unless it's for humorous effect).

    I speak American English and generally write it on the forum, but I will use British English if I'm responding to someone who has written "tyre" or "kerb," for example, simply out of courtesy and not wanting to confuse the issue of AE vs BE. But that is an exception -- as I said, you pick one and stick with it, although knowing something about the other variation is always helpful for your own comprehension.
     

    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    I'd like to think that there's more to it than whether the writer or editor is American or not.
    My sense is that - unfortunately - most distinctions in language are completely arbitrary. It's human nature to want to fill them with meaning, sure, which is why we come up with fun acronyms to explain the etymology of the word "posh," etc. etc. But in the end, we always will run up against the purely arbitrary nature of language.

    The preference about how to treat singular nouns that refer to pluralities is, I believe, just one of those arbitrary distinctions. We may want to believe there's something significant about the difference between "colour" and "color," but I don't think we should read anything into it.
     

    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    I'd think you'd use the style and spelling you've been taught and that comes naturally to you—in your case, Canadian English. (The exception might be if you're writing something for publication in another English-speaking country in which the natives are used to seeing other terms and spellings.) In my case that would mean saying that such entities as "the company", "the government", and "the army" (all of which are singular, not plural, nouns) is, not "are".
     
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    Rabelaisian

    Senior Member
    English - Canadian
    Yes, in Canada we follow British English; but what if it is a character in a novel that is talking, and it's undetermined what country he's in and/or where he originates from? For example, he could be living in America but from Canada, Scotland, England, etc. And all that aside, I'm wondering if there's a feel to one version that the other does not have that can better express the character's point of view.
     

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    In your descriptive passages, you would write in British English or American English ... your choice.

    If your character is speaking American English, you would write that; likewise with a BE-speaking character. If it's undetermined where your character is from, you don't know your characters well enough and shouldn't be writing the novel. :) Whatever you write will likely tell the reader where he or she is from -- or if you want to keep it a secret, you will avoid telltale AE or BE forms, e.g. forms of plurality, as your thread suggests.
     

    Rabelaisian

    Senior Member
    English - Canadian
    If it's undetermined where your character is from, you don't know your characters well enough and shouldn't be writing the novel. :)
    That's a really cynical thing to say and, frankly, makes no sense. Of all the novels I've ever read, very few have stated, or made a point of demonstrating, where the characters (in particularly all the characters) were from exactly. Does that mean those novels shouldn't have been written? Of course it doesn't. It's usually an insignificant tidbit, just like eye-colour is. That information is simply not a necessary part of the story, especially if it's a minor character that's only around for a chapter. It rarely matters if they're from the U.K. or the U.S.

    Whatever you write will likely tell the reader where he or she is from -- or if you want to keep it a secret, you will avoid telltale AE or BE forms.
    The character could originally be from one place, but have been living in another for years; that's the point. It remains ambiguous, unless it is explicitly stated.
     
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    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    You don't have to state where your characters are from ... the language you put into their mouths will tell (or hide) the fact of where they're from. That is my point.

    If they have no speaking part and you don't say where they're from, then who's to know ... so it doesn't make any difference.

    We are going far beyond the discussion of plurality here. You might wish to find a forum for creative writers and ask how others view these problems and what they do about them.
     

    Rabelaisian

    Senior Member
    English - Canadian
    You don't have to state where your characters are from ... the language you put into their mouths will tell (or hide) the fact of where they're from. That is my point.
    Well, for example, if a person says something like "You think so, eh?" I certainly don't assume he's Canadian. He could be Canadian, American, English, Irish or Indian for that matter. 99% of the dialogue I read in novels, could be stated by a person from anyone of those countries. It's rare that an author offers a distinct character dialogue that can allow a reader to say something like, "Ah! Bingo! He's from South Detroit!"
     

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    Well, for example, if a person says something like "You think so, eh?" I certainly don't assume he's Canadian. He could be Canadian, American, English, Irish or Indian for that matter. 99% of the dialogue I read in novels, could be stated by a person from anyone of those countries.
    That's why I said tell or hide (or at least not reveal) a person's origin. This discussion began because of your question: "... but what if it is a character in a novel that is talking, and it's undetermined what country he's in and/or where he originates from?"

    I gave you a suggestion on how to approach this. You may accept or reject my thoughts but let's not continue a discussion of it in a thread on plurality.
     

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    Ok, I'll take this discussion to the point of some other moderator deleting our recent comments. Let's rewrite your question, then: "... but what if it is a character in a novel that is talking, and it's hidden what country he's in and/or where he originates from?"

    If you are purposely hiding his origin, you will be careful not to have him say anything that would offer a clue to it. So there is no choice to be made between American, British, Canadian, Australian or India English -- you will provide dialog that has no unique traces of any of these.
     

    Szkot

    Senior Member
    UK English
    For example, writing, "It is the army of Sparta that are destined to win" (British) vs. "It is the army of Sparta that is destined to win" (American).
    Dear me, I seem to have woken up American. Your 'British' sentence looks wrong to me, which is not to say I never use a plural verb with army. But not in that sentence.
     

    fivejedjon

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Dear me, I seem to have woken up American. Your 'British' sentence looks wrong to me, which is not to say I never use a plural verb with army. But not in that sentence.
    I agree. The 'it is' at the beginning seems to acts as a pull towards the singular in the rest of the sentence.
     

    Rabelaisian

    Senior Member
    English - Canadian
    I agree. The 'it is' at the beginning seems to acts as a pull towards the singular in the rest of the sentence.
    Oh, I never thought of that. What if it were "It is the army of Sparta who are destined to win"? Does the "who" offset it, rather than "that"? Or does it have to be "is" rather than "are"?
     
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    london calling

    Senior Member
    UK English
    What about, "It is they, the army, who will be the victors"?
    Yes, but in a sentence like that you may have purposely chosen they, in my opinion, because you lay the emphasis onthe Army being made up of men, hence the plural. :) That, to my mind is different from The British Army is famous the world over ;) , where the emphasis is on the Army as a corps and not on the individuals who make it up.;) If you see what I mean.;)
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    What about, "It is they, the army, who will be the victors"?
    My advice is, if you don't know how to write British English naturally (which you apparently don't), then you would best not attempt to do so. Even the most elderly of maiden aunts would find your latest effort somewhat dated.
     

    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    Even the most elderly of maiden aunts would find your latest effort somewhat dated.
    I agree that it sounds dated rather than British, but:

    A) it's dated not because of the plural agreement, but because of the "it is they" ("it is I/he/we/etc." sounds very archaic nowadays)
    B) that's not necessarily a bad thing - there are possible reasons for a character to speak in a dated way

    Plural agreement in BE comes naturally after nouns like "the jury" and "the staff"; any conversation about "the Spartan army" and their future victories is going to sound strange in and of itself because, well, we don't normally talk about the Spartan army that way.
     

    Rabelaisian

    Senior Member
    English - Canadian
    I agree that it sounds dated rather than British, but:

    A) it's dated not because of the plural agreement, but because of the "it is they" ("it is I/he/we/etc." sounds very archaic nowadays)
    B) that's not necessarily a bad thing - there are possible reasons for a character to speak in a dated way
    Exactly. My point there is made as an example of treating "army" plurally, even if I used "them" instead of "they," which I have no problem with. I never said it had to be "they," nor does it necessarily have to be said by a character in our modern times either.

    Plural agreement in BE comes naturally after nouns like "the jury" and "the staff"; any conversation about "the Spartan army" and their future victories is going to sound strange in and of itself because, well, we don't normally talk about the Spartan army that way.
    That's very true, and it could be said by a character set in times prior to their war with the Persians. That in mind, and with more contextualization, would this be okay after it is, of course, made clear, that the setting is taking place in Sparta way back then?

    "Xerxes is destined to lose, sir. It is the army of Sparta that are destined to win."

    In that way, you are comparing a person to actual individual personalities that make up the army that Xerxes is up against, that is, a person to people, rather than a person to a thing or entity (the army). Or is that still no good?
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    "Xerxes is destined to lose, sir. It is the army of Sparta that are destined to win."
    That is not British English use of the plural verb with a singular noun. It is not now, and it never has been. We do use plural nouns with singular collective nouns, but only sometimes and depending on the context. This subject has been flogged to death in previous threads, but it might take a little effort to find them.

    PS

    I'll let you have "The Spartan Army will be the victors" - that is normal BE. Some might be content with "The Spartan Army are destined to win", but I would not and could only accept "is".
     
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    JustKate

    Senior Member
    I think what Andy is saying is that a BE marker is the use of a plural verb with a collective noun - not singular, collective. There are exceptions, but this is often the case. In contrast, AmE usually (though, again, there are exceptions) uses singular verbs with collective nouns.
     
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