There’s no “I“ in team

Team is-areA phrase heard often to emphasize the meaning and essence of the word team. Interesting philosophically, but it does have implications for language use too. Namely, is team a singular or plural noun from a purely linguistic point of view?

Actually it varies depending on the variety of English used. Generally in the US, team as well as other words like family and government are traditionally considered singular – a unit that functions as one entity. However, in the UK most speakers adhere to the idea of “notional concord“ – that is, the notion of what is meant. Hence, the family (or team) are means the members of the group while the family (or team) is means the members function as one unit. But to return to the use of “generally“ in the US, things may be changing. Some sportswriters and sportcasters have begun adopting the notional concept and the Miami Heat are and Orlando Magic are have begun to appear in the American media.

As mentioned above, the concept of singular vs plural may be a purely philosophical argument and perhaps these questions should be left to the colleagues and followers of linguistic philosophers such as Paul Grice to address. But from a practical point of view, notional concord may be creating havoc among English speakers in my opinion, especially non-natives. More and more often I hear speakers exposed to notional concord incorrectly using unambiguously singular nouns. With the exception of editors and professional writers, notional grammar may have confused speakers enough to where they just throw up their hands and use whatever form seems handy at the moment. Perhaps the old rules are simply going down the proverbial drain.

And while on the subject of rules, we might consider whether English actually needs singular and plural forms of the verb in the present tense. For example, the Scandinavian languages have a verb structure very similar to English; they are fairly alike regarding the tenses. But the Scandinavian languages do not have the third-person singular “-s“ form in the present tense such as he is, she likes, it has. There is only one form in these cases, which in English translates to the plural forms – are, like and have respectively. It certainly would simplify English grammar, particularly for second language learners of English.

There is a precedence too for this type of reduction or loss. Historically, English with its Germanic roots had two forms of the second person pronoun: you and thou. Except for poetry and Shakespeare, thou (originally the singular) has basically disappeared in favor of you (originally the plural).

Back to the beginning of this discussion, since there is no “I“ in team, does that make team a plural? Or is it a singular, or both? In the same vein, there is no “we“ in government, so is it singular? Or a plural, or both? But that is definitely dangerous territory and does not only relate to language. Philosophical and political indeed.

English neutral

Matrix worldWelcome to the matrix: English in binary form?

During several decades of teaching English in international settings, particularly academic English, I have encountered non-native speakers who are uncertain of the regional written varieties of English. In fact, there are also many native speakers who are just as uncertain. As the Internet exposes all of us to more and more markets, the lines continue to blur.

Many books have been written about the vocabulary differences between American and British English; many humorous stories circulate on the Internet. But the differences go beyond vocabulary; English also varies regionally in spelling, punctuation, slang and even grammar.

Generally speaking, most writers already know the guidelines when they approach a publisher and have prepared their manuscripts accordingly. However, there are times, especially for academics, when they would like to submit articles to American, Australian, British or Canadian publishing houses. They certainly increase their chances of being published, but only if their language conforms to the specific norm.

One solution I suggest is to embrace “English neutral” … to find the overlap in English varieties where we all agree and avoid the specific regional markers. Easier said than done? Yes. However it’s not impossible.

First there are the obvious spelling differences like center or centre, organize or organise, theater or theatre, etc. Often a synonym provides a quick solution: middle, order, play/film, respectively.

Then what about punctuation: the Oxford comma (also called the Harvard or serial comma), punctuation (period or full stop) with honorifics and abbreviations including Mr/Mr., Mrs/Mrs., Dr/Dr., etc, etc. Well, the serial comma is in dispute on both sides of the Atlantic, honorifics and other abbreviations can be dropped (or as I did above with et cetera,  placed it at the end of the sentence.)

Next slang, but we can skip this one. In formal writing, just drop it. So we now come to grammatical differences. One of the most obvious differences is what linguists call notional concord — that is, the “notion” of what is meant in making the subject and verb “agree”  – I agree, you agree, but she agrees. Brits can regard family and government, for example, as either singular or plural: the family are, the government are.  The principle is what “notion” of the family and government is meant – as a single unit or as individual members. My solution has been to suggest that we always write using an indisputable plural: members of government, family members when the plural is intended.

There are many more details to consider; I truly welcome input, more examples, and especially solutions. Moreover if anyone can think of a neutral synonym that can equally replace color/colour, I would consider posting a reward!

But to return to the original premise: English in binary format. Unfortunately it’s not very workable. To begin with, binary code is based on letters, and thus the original spellings … so unless we change the original forms, we are back where we started  — variations.

Note: except for the contrasting American/British examples, this entire blog has been written in English Neutral.