Collective Nouns: The Rolling Stones

I recently copy edited a book on the Rolling Stones, and for any fellow editors and writers who run across a situation in which a collective noun appears plural on the page, I wanted to share my research and save you some trouble …

First things first: This research is only for users of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). Other style guides, including Associated Press (AP), do it differently.

Per CMS (edition 17, section 5.5), a collective noun “refers to a group or collection of people or things {a crowd of people} {a flock of birds} {a herd of rhinos}.”

Obviously, a band is a collective noun. It refers to a group of musicians.

Per CMS, collective nouns take singular verbs. For instance, “The crowd was rowdy” or “The flock is flying south,” not “The crowd were rowdy” or “The flock are flying south.”

Also, “The band is playing tonight.”

Here’s where it gets tricky …

The Rolling Stones is the name of a band—a collective noun. But “Stones” looks plural. So your first instinct will likely be to use a plural verb. If you’re working with CMS as your style guide, however, that instinct would be incorrect.

Per CMS 5.15, “Names of companies, institutions, and similar entities are generally treated as collective nouns—and hence singular in American English, even when they are plural in form {General Motors reports that it will earn a profit} {American Airlines has moved its headquarters} [italics added].”

This means that when you have a collective noun, you use a singular verb—even if the noun looks plural:

  • The Rolling Stones is one of the longest touring bands.
  • The Beastie Boys has won numerous awards.
  • The Beatles was on its way to America.

As you can see, it feels very strange to read/type singular verbs with a word ending in “s,” but if you’re working to align with CMS, this is the way to go.

Q. It grates on my ear to listen to the BBC (particularly sports) newscasts talk about countries in the plural form, e.g., “England are preparing for next week’s match.” Can this be correct? I only began noticing it a couple of years ago, and I seem to recall that the practice even extends to cities or team names (Bayern Munich are out of the playoffs . . .). Your assistance would be much appreciated. 

A. The British are much more likely to consider collectives in the plural rather than the singular. I first remember noticing this when reading about English rock bands back in the seventies (the Who are the loudest rock band in the world; Led Zeppelin, some say, have sold their souls). Fowler’s points out this difference between American and British usage at various points. In American English this usage has largely disappeared. (CMS online Q&A on “Usage and Grammar”)

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