Tuesday, November 24, 2009

RT Headline: Typo or Social Comment?

When I first saw the lead headline in The Roanoke Times this morning, I thought "typo." The more I ruminated, though, the more I thought the headline may be social commentary and not grammatical error.

The headline is "Grieving family want H1N1 test performed." "Want" is obviously wrong in this sense, because family is singular and would take "wants" as its verb. Unless, of course, you consider family a system of separate entities and not a single unit. "Couple" has been problematic ("have been problematic"?) in the past. I consider a couple one; some say it's two. Same with family: one or many?

Our current society tends to split families among its various electronic gadgets (see the cover of the Nov. 17 New Yorker for an example; sorry, I can't find it to link you, so buy one) and the splintering has been going on all my life. "Family unit" sounds like an oxymoron. Sadly.


  1. This ex-teacher will go for the grammatical error instead of the social comment. When a collective noun acts as one unit, it's singular. If it acts as individuals (going in different directions or doing different things), it's plural.

    The story implies that the members of the family are all in agreement; hence family is singular and the verb should be wants.

    Members of the family want; the family wants.

  2. Becky: You're being too literal. The question was rhetorical.

  3. As I recall, that's how the Brits say it. When we moved to an apartment in London one October and the gas had been turned off and it was pretty cold, our landlady said, "The gas company don't care."

    Since everything else about her said that she was upper-middle-class, I was surprised to hear her say that. Turns out, that's what they do.

    In American English, we only use the singular for the first reference. We'd say, "The gas company doesn't care. They don't care if you freeze to death."

    I know: not the point of your post! But I'm fascinated with the differences between British and American English.

  4. Janis: Oh, hell, the Brits can't speak English. Singular and plural pronouns, by the way, are one of the most common errors made by professional writers. Company names are almost always followed by "they" ("General Motors has announced they will recall 200,000 cars ...")and from a writer with 20 years' experience, that is maddening.