Is “family” plural or singular?

TT writes:

You are usually a stickler for correct use of the language. Your headline reads:

When he was 13, Belcher repeatedly beat up and threatened a white boy until the boy’s family were forced to move

Shouldn’t it be “the familly was forced to move?”

The use of “were” suggests that the family was not a unit.

LA replies:

Family is one of those words that are both singular and plural, because it refers to an entity that consists of more than one person. So I think “the family were forced” is correct or at least acceptable. Also, I’ve always favored the way the British treat “government” as a plural noun, e.g., “The Government are not disposed to proceed with the measure at this time.” That usage makes clear that the government is not a thing, but a collection of persons who are running the country. I probably transferred that way of thinking to “family.”

However, I’m not sure that I’m right about “family” and I’ll need to look it up.

- end of initial entry -

Nik S. writes:

As with so many confusions, I believe it is a British vs. American smackdown. Brits think corporations are plural entities; Americans think corporations are singular.

“Nintendo are planning to release a new device in 2002 called the GameCube….”

December 5

Felicie C. writes:

According to the Purdue University grammar site, collective nouns are used mostly in singular, with some exceptions:

10. Collective nouns are words that imply more than one person but that are considered singular and take a singular verb, such as group, team, committee, class, and family.

The team runs during practice.

The committee decides how to proceed.

The family has a long history.

My family has never been able to agree.

In some cases in American English, a sentence may call for the use of a plural verb when using a collective noun.

The crew are preparing to dock the ship.

LA replies:

Thank you for looking this up.

Yes, but if we say “The crew are preparing to dock the ship” (because the reference is to multiple individuals doing different tasks, not to the crew as an undivided entity), there may also be times when when it’s appropriate to treat “family” as a plural: “The family were busy fixing their house.”

However, I agree that my phrase, “The family were forced to move,” is probably incorrect, because the reference is to a family acting as a single entity.

Joseph E. writes:

Hilaire Belloc once noted that Americans would say,

“The government is planning such and such,”

while the English would say

“Government are planning such and such,”

because to us government is a single thing, while to them it is a shared project of Parliament and the ruling classes. [LA replies: More specifically, we think of the government as the administrative apparatus; the British think of the government as the top officials of the party that holds the majority in the House of Commons. It is a group of individuals, not a thing.]

It is also curious that mathematics is singular for us, and plural for them. Our shorthand for the discipline is “math,” theirs is “maths.”

To me the singular use of family seems more natural. A unit, as an army is.

No one would say, “An army are marching to war. ‘

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 04, 2012 08:19 PM | Send

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