Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I'm a Lancaster. Is that OK?

So, fellow Grammarians. I submit the following for your consideration. It was posted in the women's restroom at our city's central library. 

(Are you wondering why that photo looks so funkified? Well, it's because SOMEONE monkeyed around with the settings on my phone so he could take self-portraits like this one: 

But we're not mentioning any names. Nope. Love covers.)

So, anyway. In case that first photo's a bit ambiguous, let me translate:

Facilities has been notified."

Except that someone (and I guarantee you, it wasn't the same someone who monkeyed with my phone) had taken up the pen of outrage and modified the sign to read: 

Facilities have been notified."

I really get my kicks, imagining a passive-aggressive battle  unfolding between two prim librarians, both smug in their respective towers of Proper Grammar. 

"Facilities HAS!" 
Tsk, tsk, my ignorant colleague; it's "Facilities HAVE!" 

It's like the Wars of the Roses all over again (Ian and I just read about that infamous affair again; gosh, what a writhing mess of Richards, Henrys, and backstabbing Edwards). The Lancasters confidently assert that Facilities is an entity, an office, a singular body to be notified in the case of malfunctioning hand dryers. The Yorks rebut that no, Facilities ends with an "s," is a plural word, and therefore must always be treated as such.

Where do you stand on the issue, gentle readers? 


Anonymous said...


But it's an interesting debate, and one I've considered sometimes when reading American and British English publications. I don't remember perfectly, but I feel like I used to notice a lot of things like this: "England are going to the World Cup!" when I read British publications. (Whereas, in America, we consider nations to be singular nouns.)

Actually, in the early American days, "The United States" was plural. "The United States are sending John Adams to France"; somewhere along the line, though, we became singular.

One more note on the issue at hand though: this is a good reason NOT TO USE PASSIVE VOICE. "We have notified facilities" solves all your problems ;) #petpeeveanyone

(also thoroughly enjoyed the anonymous photo of your blue-faced friend :p)

Ian said...

Excellent point about passive voice, Nicole!

Hannah said...

Errr ... that was me. Ian keeps logging me out.

Tim said...

My vote is LANCASTER.
This comes up for me all the time in scientific writing. I believe that the data SHOWS us things, but there are other pretentious sons-of-guns who insist that the data SHOW their worth.
Yes, I know that in latin, data is plural of datum, but datum, in scientific-speak, has a specific meaning. It is a reference point from which other measurements are made. More than one datum may be two data, but not in the sense we think.
Data, as we use it and as we mean in the sense of information, is uncountable. There may be a single data point, but it includes a lot of contextual information about how it was measured, units, and so forth which make up the data. Even a single data point, while countable, is still composed of data, which cannot be counted.
Every time I read the phrase "the data show" I feel that the author has gone out of his or her way to let me know that they know the latin root and that data is plural. I recently had a paper marked up in which my coauthor corrected my verbs for data from singular to plural. Deep breathing and forced relaxation ensued. Then I avoided the issue by changing the wording.
I think it's actually best to refer to data in a way that doesn't require a verb number. The data doesn't actually show you anything. You look at the data and infer things. Problem solved.
Thanks, my dear, for providing a release of my pent-up data frustrations.

Anonymous said...

As a professional editor, I'm on Team Lancaster as well. (Do we get team shirts, btw?) Especially in this case, when by "Facilities," the writer actually means the singular Facilities Department or Office. It's not like s/he alerted every facility around. You can just imagine someone saying to each stall in turn, "Sorry, you can't be used. Please get fixed."

Erica said...

Oops, sorry, my sister in law apparently was logged into my computer. That last message was from Erica!

Stephanie said...

Why do I have the urge to log in as someone else before posting this comment...?

"Facilities has"
And that's all I have to say about that.

Anonymous said...

The original note-writer is right ... as others have said, "Facilities" is short-speak for Facilities Department, also referred to as Facilities Maintenance (Department implied). I worked with people in "Facilities" for several years and it is normal to hear things like "Facilities was under the impression that ..."

Michelle L said...

I'm on Team Lancaster too! I think Nicole's mention of the treatment of "The United States" also shows interesting political/national change in the past 200 years. In the early days of America, it seems like the States were more autonomous. Maybe the federal level functioned only on major issues, so it makes sense that the States would be considered plural at that time. Nowadays that is not the case, but I'm no expert on history or politics! =) And this also exposes my confusion when it comes to capitalization of a particular type of noun. =)


This is really Cathy and I'm a Lancaster. I also work with many editors who like to throw their latin root weight around. Here, here, Tim! Or was that really you? Thanks, Hannah, for a great, fun post!

JoAnn said...

In GB, where the original War of the Roses was fought, they always treat collective nouns as plural. Therefore, it's "facilities have." So if we were there, that would be correct. Now, if you had referenced the Civil War, we would say, "facilities has."
This is a fun debate; let's hope that "facilities" has done their job by the time you go back..... or, should I say, "Facilities has done its job"? Whatever.....

Lydia said...

Hannah, I have finally gathered the gumption and admiration enough to reveal myself: I have been an avid closet fan of your blog for months! I'm pretty ashamed to confess that I've been anonymously hiding behind the cyber-curtain consistently reading and laughing/crying along with your posts... with not so much as a comment in return. Enough of that! I'm a fan! Just thought you should know. :)

Hannah said...

Awwww ... thanks, Lydia! I'm so glad you said Hello. :-)

Jenny said...

I'm definitely a member of Team Lancaster, for the same reasons everyone has mentioned.

Tim, I also share your disdain for those who consider data to be plural. I think of data as a set of pieces of information, and a set is a singular (but collective) noun. "These data show..." sounds pretentious to me.

Nicole, I didn't realize "The United States" was once considered to be a plural noun. Thanks for the interesting bit of grammar history.

Out of curiosity, how do you feel about "Each of us": "have" or "has"? I've heard compelling arguments both ways. My linguistic professor friend says "have", and my editor friend says "has". I use "has".

Jenny said...

Also, I really need to update my profile photo. I believe it's from 2004.

Galex said...

That was a really cool self-portrait!

The lack of consideration for the audience bugs me more than the grammar. The average library restroom user doesn't have inside knowledge about what "Facilities" means. It ends up sounding silly, since it's not even clear whether "Facilities" is a proper noun.