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"A school of fish swims away" vs "A school of fish swim away."

Enough said.

What's the rule under such circumstances?

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Is the school swimming, or are the fish swimming? (I'd say they're both swimming, so you can use either swim or swims here.) –  Peter Shor Jun 19 '12 at 20:22
    
This is matter of style, not of grammatical rules. –  user19148 Jun 19 '12 at 20:28
    
But if you really want a rule, remove the description to arrive at "A school" + verb. That subject is singular. –  Andrew Leach Jun 19 '12 at 20:37
    
"School of fish" is singular (a collective noun), so "swims" is appropriate. If the fish were the subject, both swim and swims would be correct depending on singular/plural fish. –  Fr0zenFyr Jun 19 '12 at 20:46
    
@Fr0zenFyr unless you're British in which case, "school" is a collective noun and therefore plural - Swim. (note - I'm not British) –  Charles Jun 19 '12 at 21:58

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There's no "rule". If you want to emphasis the fact of the fish behaving as a unit, use the singular. You can always justify this by pointing out that "a school" is singular.

If you want to call attention to the fact that there are many fish in the school, all doing the same thing, use the plural. You can justify this by pointing out that Google Books has 1620 instances of "a flock of sheep graze", compared to only 102 for "a flock of sheep grazes".

As with the school and the flock, English speakers get safety in numbers by using the plural!

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Here is the Ngram; if you look at were grazing rather than graze, you get enough hits it that Ngram registers these. –  Peter Shor Jun 20 '12 at 12:47
    
@Peter Shor: We don't have much of a sample size in either case, but that past tense NGram has plural outnumbering singular by only about 2:1 - far more than the 15:1 suggested by my Google Books search. I suspect the "immediacy" of present tense contexts makes it more likely the speaker/writer will see the flock as multiple individual sheep. By the same token, past tense implies more "distance", making it easier to think of the sheep as a single unit - sometimes simply for the sake of imposing superficial grammatical consistency. –  FumbleFingers Jun 20 '12 at 13:59

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