It was taking photos

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This sentence is from a report in The Guardian, a UK paper, but I suspect it was written in the USA, where the (fictive) rule that a pronoun must agree in number with its antecedent noun is often taken very seriously:

One person was killed and five others were injured when a large eucalyptus tree fell on a wedding party while it took photographs at a southern California park on Saturday, authorities said.

I have seldom seen a case where a noun denoting a collection of people acting jointly felt so much in need of being allowed to be the antecedent of the plural pronoun they. But under the strict syntactic rule that some people wrongly imagine they should apply, they needs a plural antecedent, and party is singular (and non-human).

The syntactic rule would be less likely to apply across sentences in discourse; I doubt whether anyone would write: "While we watched, a wedding party came out of the church. It stood around taking photographs for a while, and then it got into five cars and drove off."

My feeling that this odd pronoun choice would be more likely to be found in American English is only a hunch, and could easily be wrong. I haven't located a US source that The Guardian might have been repeating. It wasn't the City of Whittier police department news report, and it wasn't USA Today, though the soundtrack of the embedded video there says "The wedding party was reportedly taking photos" — with singular verb agreement. British English would strongly prefer "The wedding party were reportedly taking photos."


  1. Robot Therapist said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 4:45 pm

    To me, as a UK reader, it suggests that the tree was taking the photos.

  2. Mandie Davis said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 4:54 pm

    Yes, I agree that the tree seems to have been taking the photos! The whole sentence is rather clumsy though and would possibly have been better split into two. I'm also a reader from the UK.

  3. j2h said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 5:01 pm

    It seems to have originally come from the Associated Press:

    But the AP version (and the version that appears on other sites) uses the wording "a wedding party taking photographs" instead.

    At a guess, either AP initially put out the version reproduced in the Guardian and updated it later, or the Guardian's version was rewritten by a British journalist attempting to write in American English (as with many British newspapers these days, the Guardian's website offers a US-targeted variant for American visitors), and overcorrecting themselves as a result.

  4. Brett said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 5:13 pm

    It reads like the tree was shooting pictures to my American ear as well.

  5. David L said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 5:19 pm

    Bizarre whether you're American or British, IMO. And I wouldn't write "the wedding party were taking photographs" either, since 'party' refers to the collective entity, which I don't regard as being capable of operating a camera. "People in/members of the wedding party were taking pictures," or "wedding participants…" or something along those lines would be my preference.

  6. MsH said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

    Do we have a word or expression yet for the special case where a hypercorrection produces this sort of horrifying crash blossom?

    [I'm not sure we have a hypercorrection, but we certainly don't have a crash blossom. A crash blossom is an (unintentionally) humorous ambiguity in a headline, often caused by noun-noun compounding. —GKP]

  7. Holly said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

    I agree with David. The expression is awkward on both sides of the Atlantic. It is far more likely that the wedding party was being photographed rather than making photographs. I (an American) would say "…wedding party which was being photographed in the park."

  8. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 5:55 pm

    @j2h: I bet you're right — a British editor was trying to Americanize the text for an international audience — but it should still have been caught in proofreading. After all, even if a British person somehow believed that American readers would understand the it as referring to the wedding party rather than to the tree, (s)he should surely have realized, at least, that British readers would not.

  9. Mara K said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 6:13 pm

    This is actually a moment where the use of agentless passive could save the day: "a large eucalyptus tree fell on a wedding party while photographs were being taken…"

    Also not optimal, but at least it avoids implying that a tree can take photographs.

  10. David Morris said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 6:38 pm

    So was the wedding party taking photographs, or was a photographer taking photos of the wedding party?

  11. Guardian subeditor said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 6:39 pm

    It's a lot harder to find the Guardian's style guide than it used to be, but you will find that this breaks the rules of Guardian style if you scroll down to the entry on collective nouns here:

    But then this story will have come from the Guardian's US office which employs mainly American journalists and often takes very little notice of the style guide…

  12. Theophylact said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 6:55 pm

    Or "a wedding party taking photographs were/was struck by a falling eucalyptus tree".

  13. Ellen Kozisek said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 6:59 pm

    My own hunch is that it's not American English, but a sub-variety of American English, from people who think too much, and not for the better.

  14. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 7:37 pm

    I'm with j2h and Ran Ari-Gur: as an American, I can't believe an American would write this and think it colloquial; but I can absolutely imagine a Brit, having seen that Americans write "the team was" instead of the British "the team were", thinking this to be correct across the Pond.

  15. DaveK said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 7:51 pm

    Definitely, the rule in American English is that collective nouns take singular verbs but plural pronouns. "My family is always fighting among themselves" sounds fine to me (Northeast US) but it might sound odd to a Briton.!

  16. Anthony said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 8:58 pm

    A number of people begs to disagree.

  17. John Roth said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 9:19 pm

    IIRC, the Guardian went to a policy of not making adjustments to stories for the American audience some time ago. As one reader said, it looks like they picked the story up off the AP wire and didn't do an additional copy-edit; the AP fixed it later.

  18. John Roth said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 9:30 pm

    Well, most of the comments about "singular they" I've seen here and elsewhere say that this usage is the one that pre-dates Chaucer, and the "rule" that prevents it was an invention of 18th century grammarians, and also that good writers regularly flout it.

    I'm puzzled by the notion that party is non-human or that being non-human would have any relevance. A party is a group of people engaged in a specific kind of activity, after all.

    [Party is a non-human noun. You can see this from The party was finally spotted when it showed up on an aerial photograph taken by one of the search aircraft. But since it denotes a group of humans, it is often allowed to trigger plural verb agreement (The party were beginning to fight with each other over the dwindling food supply) and of course singular they (The party decided they would not try to reach the summit until the next day). —GKP]

  19. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 9:52 pm

    @ MsH:

    Do we have a word or expression yet for the special case where a hypercorrection produces this sort of horrifying crash blossom?

    German verschlimmbessern (verb) and Verschlimmbesserung (noun) come close.Y

  20. boynamedsue said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 11:46 pm

    I personally assumed that the "it" referred back to the person who was killed rather than the wedding party. To me it initially looked like singular "they" avoidance gone very wrong.

    Perhaps because I am from a generation when you would only expect one person to be taking photos at a wedding, which is how it should still be IMHO.

  21. Thomas Lumley said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 12:27 am

    Coincidentally, the same item came on the local (NZ) TV news just after I read the post, but with better word choice: a large eucalyptus tree fell on a wedding party while they took photographs

  22. JPL said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 2:02 am

    Also rather odd in this example, if I could focus on the aspectual form of the verb ("… while it took photographs …"), where the "simple past" form "took" would be interpreted as representing the photo- taking situation as a whole (perfective aspect): The other clause also has a simple past form, interpreted aspectually as perfective ("fell"); this makes it seem as if the tree was falling on the people throughout the picture- taking ("while"), perhaps repeatedly, or parts of it falling throughout. (Cf. "… confetti fell from the tree on the wedding party below as they took pictures …") So, I would have phrased it, "… fell on a wedding party while they were taking photographs …". That puts the tree- falling inside the uncompleted situation of photo- taking (imperfective meaning, in this case progressive). Is this preference for the simple past also an Americanism? Oddly, with the progressive verb form, and the "singular" verb agreement ("… fell … it was taking …"), it gives me an even stronger feeling that the "party" was affected as a whole group at once (as in "a crowd of people"), probably because, while the progressive verb with the plural subject allows a distributive interpretation of the individual picture- takings, with the singular subject the individual picture- takings are seen as done by the group as a single organism.

  23. boynamedsue said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 3:34 am


    The double use of single past is not an americanism for me, it is just formal, and preferred by British journalists as it saves a word every time you can dodge the past progressive.

  24. Emily Rose said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 3:56 am

    Great it is… i am very passionate to take a click of tress.

  25. Stan Carey said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 4:32 am

    I've seen noun of multitude used to refer to terms like party, team, jury, government, group, crowd, department, family, audience, public, etc. that have a foot in both singular and plural camps and can go either way in context.

  26. cliff arroyo said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 5:14 am

    Newspaper articles of this type are now often written in places like the Phillipines or by computers and then copy-edited on the fly by a human native speaker. I don't think weird usage is indicative of anything but problems in that process. I certainly has no value as language data in the traditional sense.

    I would be hesitant to make any linguistic judgements based on newspaper content now unless I was reasonably sure who wrote it.

  27. Mr Punch said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    Just bad writing. As for a supposed US rule requiring agreement, no American would write, for example, "General Motors are."

  28. Marja Erwin said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 10:04 am

    Well, I would.

    I can be inconsistent, but I sometimes use plural verbs, if I'm talking about groups of people, such as wedding parties, General Motors, etc.

  29. Rose Eneri said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 10:08 am

    This sentence from the local Fox News affiliate shows the singular wedding party. And it indicates that they (plural here sounds best to me) were posing for pictures.

    "The wedding party was apparently posing for pictures at the time the tree fell."

    So for me, a native Philadelphian, it would go like this. "Where is the wedding party? They are over there." I can't say why.

  30. Robbie said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 10:33 am

    It's awkward phrasing that reads, to my eye, like a simple error compounded by being in an over-complicated sentence. The Guardian has a long and illustrious history of quite outstanding typos (its nickname is the Grauniad for this reason), and a misplaced "it" is small fry by its reckoning.

  31. Guy said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    The "failed attempt at Americanization" and "simple editing error" hypotheses both seem strong. As already noted, in American English, collective nouns usual take singular verbs but in many situations plural pronouns, but the increased availability (or necessity, as in this case) of semantic override for pronouns is a nuance that often gets overlooked in descriptions of the differences between American and British English.

  32. Cervantes said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 3:16 pm

    So was the wedding party taking photographs, or was a photographer taking photos of the wedding party?

    More than once I've heard people say "We were taking photographs" when others might say "We were posing for photographs" — at a family reunion, for example, where everyone but the photographer is in the frame.

  33. David G said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    As Guardian subeditor said, many stories published online by the Guardian are written and subedited in the US office now. You can often find US spellings so I don't think we need an elaborate theory to explain what happened here …

  34. James Wimberley said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 9:20 am

    Brits don't think that General Motors are a person, unless it's being sued.

  35. GH said,

    December 21, 2016 @ 5:59 am

    @Marja Erwin:

    But as you say, if you write "General Motors are," it's because you're considering the company as a collective of multiple people, not because "Motors" is in the plural. You might equally well write "Facebook are," even though that company name is singular.

    I think Mr Punch's point was that even in American lects that don't allow plural agreement for companies, the agreement is conceptual, because names like "General Motors" or "Warner Brothers" or "Procter & Gamble" are treated as singular (as in the title card "Universal Pictures presents," which never sounded quite right to me).

    I would think the logic is similar to that governing agreement for titles, e.g. "Friends was a hit TV show in the 90s," rather than "Friends were…"

  36. Travis said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 4:18 am

    I'm no expert, but I was under the impression that applying singular verb conjugations to group nouns was a British thing, far more so than an American one.

    I can't seem to find it right now, but I feel like I remember reading somewhere a discussion about how Brits would say "the Beatles was," thinking of the band as a singular noun, whereas Americans would almost never do that, referring in most cases to the Beatles as plural – four people, not one – "the Beatles were…"

  37. Karen said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    The syntactic rule would be less likely to apply across sentences in discourse;

    I have asked people who insist on "he" for "everyone" to fill in the blanks: Everyone looked out the window when _____ heard the fire alarm, then grabbed ____ stuff and ran out of the building.

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