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Football clubs like ‘Gor Mahia’ are plural nouns

By Pharaoh Ochichi | November 14th 2015

NAIROBI: As local sports journalists write about the world’s most popular sport – the beautiful game, also called soccer in some countries – they should avoid writing, for example, that “Gor Mahia has thrashed Tusker 3-0, Man U is on the verge of qualifying for the second round of the Champions League, and Chelsea is at the sixes and sevens”. How and why are these constructions ungrammatical?

No, they aren’t faulty sentences. In sports, ‘teams’ falls into the class of collective nouns. These words can be both singular and plural, and sometimes one has to reason to know whether to pluralise them or not – this is what makes them problematic. In the British English (BrE), collective nouns, also known as group nouns, are words denoting a number of individuals. They’re grouped together because they are units of a family, class, team, etc. When they refer to a collection of individual objects/people, rather than a group as a single unit, they take plural verbs and plural pronouns. But when they’re seen as single units, they become singular, taking verbs and pronouns (all in singular form). For example, “Tim’s family have opted to move to the rural area; they think life there is easy”. “A modern African family comprises four members; this is smaller than a traditional African family”. Collective nouns can also be viewed as singular and plural at the same time, for example, “The public is/are fed up with corruption in this country; the audience is/are having a performance of its/their life; the Jubilee government hasn’t/haven’t achieved its/their election pledges”.

Thus football teams/clubs are supposed to take plural verbs and plural pronouns, or/and singular verbs and singular pronouns. But grammar experts advise strongly that these teams take plural verbs and hence plural pronouns. Stories by news agencies such as Reuters and AFP treat football teams as plural nouns, with the BBC always pluralising all sports teams. For example whereas The Standard had the sentence: United have not scored in any competition ... (November 3, 2015, page 44), the Daily Nation carried the headline: Madrid were ‘exceptional’... (October 23, page 67). The Star, on the other hand, wrote: Southampton were slick... (November 3, page 44). The verbs in these sentences are in plural form, proving that the subjects are plural. Local sportswriters therefore should avoid the following constructions, obtained from one daily newspaper: our long suffering club deserves a break (October 26, page 49); why Gor Mahia has to lose for Raila to win (August 9, page 31); Gor Mahia has no place for hooligans (August 17, page 53).

Since this discussion (as last week’s) is about nouns, let’s look back to the past week to sort out unfinished business. Compound nouns, as mentioned, are formed by two or more words. There are three types of these nouns: closed, open or hyphenated, and examples of closed ones are, ‘headmaster’, ‘newspaper’, and ‘timetable’. Open compound nouns are, for example, ‘head girl’, ‘bus station’ and ‘trade agreement’; whereas hyphenated compound nouns are ‘father-in-law’, ‘passer-by’ and ‘good-bye’. Finally, compound nouns are pluralised first, by making the initial element plural, e.g. ‘men-of-war’, ‘mothers-in-law’ and courts martial; second, by pluralising both the first and last (second) elements, for example, ‘women doctors’ and ‘menservants’; and lastly by pluralising the last element, eg ‘girlfriends’, ‘fountain pens’, mother-in-laws and court martials. I hope you’ve noted some inconsistencies in pluralisation.

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