Saturday, September 13, 2008


I understand that British people tend to construe their plural nouns as plural, even when they sound singular, so that they would say, "The Who are embarking on another farewell tour," whereas an American speaker would more likely say, "The Who is embarking on another farewell tour."

So what are we to make of the first two lines of the chorus to Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army"? To wit:

Oliver's army is here to stay
Oliver's army are on their way

Is there some subtle distinction between the two subjects that I am not grasping? Or is ol' Declan just having a bit of a larf on us?

1 comment:

Gavin said...

The way I learned it is that there's a class of collective nouns that can be either plural or singular, depending on the context and the meaning.

Saying "The Who is still one of the highest-grossing touring acts" emphasizes their collective endeavor and is appropriately singular. Saying "The Who are taking separate limos back to the hotel" emphasizes the individuals who form the band and is appropriately plural.

So, if Elvis is using his language precisely (usually a good assumption):

The first line emphasizes the army as a whole, settling in as a permanent fact of the culture.
The second line shifts the focus to the individual soldiers who make up the army, and the choices they're making.