Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Family Is? The Family Are?

When you direct an ESL program, you get two types of emergency phone calls--the "something terrible has happened and I can't teach my class" phone calls, and the "this grammar point is making me crazy and I need to see if anyone else in the world understands it" calls.

To people who have never faced a room of confused ESL students, the second type of call probably does not sound like a true emergency. But if this is your life and if you're somehow responsible for the students' confusion (even if it's really the fault of the &*#@ textbook or worksheet), it really does feel like an emergency.

We had one of those moments yesterday. Apparently one of our class books had an example in it with "the family are" as correct usage. The instructor called me up..."I mean, I guess it could be right, the family are, they are...but what's right? Really?"

And here's the thing...it depends. What country are you in? In the US, we're most likely to treat family as a singular noun and say "the family is." As in, my family is large, my family is crazy. The part that I didn't think to mention is that it sort of depends on whether you're talking about family as an entity or whether you're talking about family as a bunch of individuals. So, I might say, "my family are all spread out all over the world" and be correct in saying "family are" because here we're talking about a bunch of family members who are all in different places. But quite often we do talk about family as an it instead of a they, in part because we like to think of family as a unit--ideally, a happy and cohesive unit.

The thing is, textbook authors and editors should really know better than to use a collective noun like "family" or "team" in a frigging example in a fairly introductory book that's just trying to help students learn that they should say "he walks" instead of "he walk." Collective nouns can be complicated, and I wouldn't want to force a group of ESL students to have to choose whether "the team is ready" or "the team are ready" is correct.

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