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A newspaper ran this headline recently:

(1) Police crack down on IAC protesters. [emph added]

Why did it not read:

(2) ? Police cracks down on IAC protesters.

I have found instances of "police cracks" in newspapers: "Police cracks whip" and "Chesterfield police cracks down on drunk drivers". However, Google's Ngram Viewer suggests that "police cracks" is significantly less frequent:

Ngram frequency of <code>police crack</code> and others

I think that the difference between "Police crack down" and "Police cracks down" is influenced by subject-verb agreement and that the difference in this example reflects the grammatical number of the verb's subject. Here, "cracks" is inflected for singular number, which implies that its subject is singular, and "crack" is inflected for plural number, which implies that its subject is plural. E.g.:

The army cracks down on IAC protesters. [singular]

The armies crack down on IAC protesters. [plural]

The confusing thing about (1) and (2) is that the subject, "police", looks like it is singular; the plural form would be "polices", but I have never heard this form (for the noun).

It sounds like police fits the definition of a collective noun, which Wikipedia says is "the name of a number (or collection) of people or things taken together and spoken of as one whole. For example, in the phrase 'a pride of lions', pride is a collective noun." Police fits this because it refers to (i) some relevant police force or (ii) some relevant group of police officers, which are both collections of people taken as wholes. It does not refer to a single police officer.

So one might conjecture that verbs whose subjects are collective nouns are inflected for plural number. However, it sounds like group also fits the definition of a collective noun because it refers to a collection of individuals taken as a whole. And I think that both of the following sound acceptable.

(3) The group crack down on IAC protesters.

(4) The group cracks down on IAC protesters.

The above conjecture also doesn't explain why it is sometimes okay to use "police cracks".

My preliminary questions: Do (1), (2), (3) and (4) all sound acceptable to everyone else? Are police and group both collective nouns?

My main questions: If (3) and (4) are both acceptable and police and group are both collective nouns, then why does (1) but not (2) sound acceptable, or at least why is "police crack" better than "police cracks"? How do you determine the correct conjugation for a verb whose subject is a collective noun? Is there a general rule, or does it vary from case to case?

My secondary questions: Does the behavior of (1) and (2) have to do with synesis? Is using police to refer to the police force more like a synecdoche or other kind of rhetorical trope? Does it matter if you add "the":

(5) The police crack down on IAC protesters.

(6) ? The police cracks down on IAC protesters.

I ask these secondary questions because I find it interesting that policeis, to me, a near synonym of police force, but police force (Ngram verb comparison) behaves oppositely to police (ngram verb comparison) when it comes to subject-verb agreement:

(7) ? The police force crack down on IAC protesters.

(8) The police force cracks down on IAC protesters.

[Note: the question mark at the beginning of an example indicates questionable grammaticality.]

  • 2
    If the person who downvoted my question a few minutes after I posted it has the time to give me some constructive feedback, I would really appreciate it. I spent a good deal of effort to make this question good. – Rachel Aug 27 '12 at 9:04
  • While I didn't downvote, I refrained from upvoting because for some of the ngrams figures, live links weren't provided. Actually, the two last figures probably should be replaced by links and brief verbal summaries. Having those figures below your questions (indeed, having anything after them) takes attention away from the questions. For similar reason, drop the parenthesized remark after cracks in main question. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Aug 27 '12 at 17:08
  • @jwpat7: Thanks. I replaced the graphics and parenthetical, but I find my secondary questions the most interesting and want to leave my comments on them. – Rachel Aug 27 '12 at 18:09
6

You're already familiar with collective nouns i.e. government, team, family. As to what verb they will take, there's a difference between British and American English:

  • In American English, most collective nouns take a singular verb.
  • In British English, most collective nouns can have a singular or plural verb.

But there are a few collective nouns that are always used with a plural verb in both British and American English. The most common examples are police and people.

You can read about it here.

  • I believe a nearly complete list of American plural collective nouns is: clergy, gentry, people, police, personnel, cattle, poultry, fauna, flora, and sometimes vermin. – Peter Shor Oct 18 '12 at 15:11
  • @PeterShor I think there are more of these, like swine, not to mention fish, sheep, elk, moose, deer, reindeer, etc. Since you didn't mention those, you must be thinking of a different class of word, somehow. Also, since I have no idea what to do about pence, it's a good thing we don't use it. :) – tchrist Oct 18 '12 at 15:25
  • @tchrist: fish, sheep, elk, moose, deer, reindeer are all words whose singular form is the same as their plural form. I believe usage varies for swine and vermin, so maybe swine should have been included with vermin on my list. – Peter Shor Oct 18 '12 at 15:49
3

I'm unhappy about the Ngram results, especially for "police is".

In the first ten results in a Google search for "police is", I found only one relevant example.

The first few referred to enquiries of a similar nature to this one:

Police is or police are?

Several hid true subjects:

The commissioner of police is ...

The primary object of an efficient police is ...

One was of an unrelated group!:

POLICE is the Largest Street Gang in America

Even the relevant hit would seem not to constitute a reliable model:

'I will bring the truth through your (media) medium. Goa police is also narrating one sided story,' Kanda told reporters.

Intuitively, using "police crack" v "police cracks" would filter out many of these unwanted results, so I believe the first Ngram gives the truer picture. Police is usually listed in the dictionary as 'a noun of singular form (ie no -s) taking a plural construction'.

Interestingly, 'church' (not the polyseme referring to a building) is treated according to synesis in the UK:

The church are going on a picnic next week.

At this very moment, the Church is engaged in a fierce battle against the forces determined to undermine the family as God intends it to be.

  • Good points. I don't usually use ngram viewer exactly because it doesn't provide that kind of contextual information. But it seems that such things are less likely to give very wrong results when it comes to comparisons, since those kinds of false-positives seem equally likely to occur for every phrase compared. – Rachel Aug 27 '12 at 10:57
  • Using BNC, 'police is' gets 68 hits (and KWICS shows nearly all of those as false hits - 'morale in the police is';'the job of the police is'; etc) while 'police are' gets 840 hits. – Roaring Fish Aug 31 '12 at 14:30
1

This one always causes problems for students, and some native speakers: "Why is it 'the army is' but 'the police are'?"

The reason is believing that police and police-force are near enough synonymous, but they are not.

The police-force is an organisation; the police are the members of the police force; and a police officer is one item of that group.

To compare this with the army, then army equates to police-force - not police. 'The police-force is' and 'the army is'.

Police equates to soldiers. 'The soldiers are' and 'the police are'.

  • Can you explain “A police officersoldier, of course, equates to a.” ? – James Waldby - jwpat7 Oct 18 '12 at 2:46
0

1° "At the moment, a group of students is talking to the head teacher."

Versus

2° "At the moment, a group of students are running the London Marathon."

The reason why the collective noun is followed by a verb in the singular in the first sentence is because the students, most probably, have decided on a spokesperson to talk to the head teacher, or, if they have not, they are not going to speak all at the same time, but taking turns.

In the second sentence, on the other hand, they each have to run, all at the same time.

That's why "Police cracks whip" makes perfect sense even though 'police' should always be followed by a verb in the plural: it is hard to imagine a group of police officers with their hands on the handle of the same whip, and coordinated enough to crack it!

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