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Collective Nouns | Practise? Practice? | Why Don't Americans Spell Like the British?

Collective Nouns

Question:I have a question about verb agreement with collective nouns. I've read that "staff" and "family" and "group" can be treated as plural or singular nouns, depending on context. But it nags me to see them plural. Here are two irksome examples:

  • "The staff have various expertises."
  • "The entire family had their appendices removed at one time."

Would it be better grammatically to write:

  • "The staff bring a range of expertise." and
  • "All family members had their appendixes removed about the same time."

Please advise me; I'd be grateful!

Answer: American usage prefers treating collective nouns as singular: the staff has, the staff brings, the family has, and so on. British usage prefers the plural: the staff have, the staff bring, and the family have. Exceptions exist, as you note.

However, let me point out that your examples all use the plural. The changes you made have nothing to do with making the verb singular. Also, "had" is the past tense for singular and plural.

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Practise? Practice?

Question:"Continued practise is necessary to achieve success." Should I use it as a verb and spell it with an 's' or as a noun and spell it with a "c". I would argue that it may be used as verb in this instance.

Answer: If you are following American usage, spell it "practice" — always. If you follow British usage, spell it with an s for verbs ("he practises every day) and with a c for nouns ("she has a thriving practice"). As your sentence uses the word, it is, in either dialect, a noun. (Thanks to UK correspondent and English teacher, Linda Abrahams, for clarifying these spelling distinctions.)

Why the difference? The OED recognizes both spellings for both the noun and verb forms. For British usage, the OED gives preference to practice/practise, following the models of advice/advise and device/devise.

Perhaps the US spelling stays the same for both the noun and verb forms because the pronunciation stays the same — unlike advice/advise, where the verb's s sounds like a z.

On both sides of the water, English spelling is a misery for most writers.

NB: It is also American practice to enclose periods and commas within quotation marks, regardless of how the quoted material is used. Your sentence would be written thus:

. . . spell the word with a "c."

British rules for such marks depend on how the quoted material is being used.

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Why Don't Americans Spell Like the British?

Question: Why do Americans' spellings differ so much? Example: Color instead of Colour, Humor instead of Humour, organization instead of organisation. The list goes on! In fact most words that Americans spell "-ize" and "-zation" we (Australia, UK, NZ etc.!) spell "-ise" and "-sation".

When did America decide to change this? and why??

Answer: On July 4, 1776, the 13 American Colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. Cultural independence followed the political. In 1783 Noah Webster, the first American lexicographer, began reforming certain spellings and (like George Bernard Shaw a century later) advocated further changes.

French-derived spellings — like "honour," "catalogue," and "centre" — were Anglicized to honor, catalog, and center. In words where the "s" sounded like "z" or the "c" like an "s," the letters followed the sound: realize, defense, and so forth.

American spelling has also updated a few of the "ough" words: plow and draft, rather than plough and draught. I look forward to transforming all the "ough" words to spellings that represent their sounds.

Perhaps one could turn the question around and ask why British spelling has resisted such sensible changes? English friends have told me that they had problems remembering where the "u" went: coulor?

English spelling — whether American or British — needs gentle, but thorough, revision so that writers can spend time on their rhetoric and meaning, rather than on their spelling.

For more information about the differences between British and American English, please visit my links page.


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