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robdamel's avatar

English Grammar- What is the correct pronoun to refer to 'family'?

Asked by robdamel (791points) June 2nd, 2011

The sentence:

My family isn´t cooking this month because ______ eating out.

Is the correct pronoun for the blank ‘they are’ or ‘it is’ eating out?

What confuses me is that we use ‘is’ for family, but when referring to them, we use ‘they are’?

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39 Answers

robdamel's avatar

Read the best answer for this yahoo post:

Is it really correct? It sounds very awkward using ‘it’ to refer to a family.

Stinley's avatar

“We are eating out” seems most logical to me, if you are including yourself, if not then “they are eating” out is good.

robdamel's avatar

@Stinley Yeah but how about when not including yourself to the family?

morphail's avatar

“they”, obviously. Referring to a family as “it” sounds silly.

JilltheTooth's avatar

“We” like @Stinley said, unless you’re not going with them, in which case “they” would work.

JLeslie's avatar

We are. When talking about your own family you would use “we.” When talking about someone else’s family then you use “they.” Unless you are not going out to dinner with them them?

robdamel's avatar

@morphail It definitely sounds silly, but it contradicts grammar rules.

robdamel's avatar

Okay thanks guys, I guess this is one of the million exceptions to English. I’m an English teacher as a second language, and boy are there many exceptions.

Stinley's avatar

@robdamel I think this is one of these cases where the rules are not right. Break the rules and be warm and fuzzy saying we or they. Not it

marinelife's avatar

One does not use it for people.

The family is a compound noun. Family is a singular unit, but it comprises a bunch of people so “they” or “we” are correct.

robdamel's avatar

@stinley haha good answer. It sucks having to explain to the students though haha

robdamel's avatar

@marinelife excellent, I will use those words to explain it.

Stinley's avatar

@marinelife said it, it is that you are using the family as a noun which is single but the second half of your sentence you are refering to a group of people which is plural

morphail's avatar

@robdamel Do you mean that using “they” contradicts grammar rules?

It doesn’t. “They” has been used with singular antecedents for 1000 years by the best writers of English. Plus “family” is a collective noun and is notionally plural anyway.

JLeslie's avatar

Family is plural. I don’t get the confusion? I mean I understand why second languages can be confusing, my Spanish has all sorts of mistakes in it, but what I wonder is in your first language how is it worded?

Stinley's avatar

@JLeslie it’s all a bit confusing in this thread

I think, to sum up, we don’t say “My family aren’t cooking because they are eating out”
and we don’t say “My family isn’t cooking because it is eating out”
We say “My family isn’t cooking because they are eating out”. There is a singular verb “is” followed by a plural verb “are”.

How does @robdamel explain why this is to his students who are learning English?
The first verb refers to the noun “family” which is singular and the second verb refers to multiple members of the family making it plural.

morphail's avatar

This is how I might explain it: “family” is syntactically singular but semantically plural. It’s called synesis or notional agreement. Other nouns like this are “staff”, “committee”, and names of sports teams.

JLeslie's avatar

@stinley. You might say My family isn’t cooking because they are eating out, but I say my family isn’t cooking because we are eating out. Unless, as I stated above, I am not going to be eating out with them.

WasCy's avatar

I don’t know the formal rules for these constructions.

I do know that some of the colloquial usage varies depending on whether one uses “British” or “American” English (or had a teacher educated primarily in one of those forms).

Because I’ve seen “My family are crazy,” and “My family is crazy,” used by native speakers – to say the same thing.

To get away from the first and third person complications above, let’s talk about “the team” (not including myself):

The team are playing well.
The team is playing well.
Both sentences mean essentially the same thing. I think that if one is being especially picky, “The team are playing well” means that the individual team members are playing well, and “The team is playing well” could mean that the team is playing well “together”. Again, both meanings are essentially the same, and both are correct where they’re commonly encountered. But I’ve seen the former construction more often in Europe (and Canada), and the latter more often in the US.

Who knows what the Australians and Kiwis say.

iamthemob's avatar

In the end, most of the issues have been well discussed. “Family” is one of those words where prescriptive grammar fails. Use the least awkward sounding. Generally that will be contextual:

Using collective nouns with pronouns.

The Jones family is having a reunion this Sunday. It meets every summer.

The Jones family are going home on Monday. They all live in different states.

JLeslie's avatar

@WasCy I have never heard or seen my family are crazy. In my less than expert opinion family is singular in that sentence. My family members are crazy, that sounds right to me, you would have to add members.

morphail's avatar

@JLeslie Collective nouns are often used with plural verbs in the UK, and singular verbs in North America.

Stinley's avatar

@morphail I see too. To me the other way sounds funny. Thanks for helping us!

iamthemob's avatar

Oh wow the answer is actually very simple. Why haven’t we seen it!!!

I don’t think that anyone said this yet, but I think we all got stuck on the nature of “family” as a collective noun instead of actually reading the sentence:

My family isn´t cooking this month because ______ eating out.

Is the correct pronoun for the blank ‘they are’ or ‘it is’ eating out?

What confuses me is that we use ‘is’ for family, but when referring to them, we use ‘they are’?

The blank is not just family as the speaker is referencing the family as a unit but also one which the speaker is a member of – it is therefore “my family and I.”

I would say, therefore, it’s the plural “we” because of the implied second subject of “I.”

JLeslie's avatar

@iamthemob That’s good. My family and I. Which goes back to what I said about using we if I too am eating out with them.

iamthemob's avatar

I feel like if it were “the family” it would be “it.” If the sentence were “My family isn’t cooking because it is eating out” it would imply that the family is doing it without the speaker.

JLeslie's avatar

@iamthemob I always think people get he, she, they, not it. But, some people do use the family, which would imply it would be appropriate, but I find it odd.

robdamel's avatar

@JLeslie The confusion is this:
You said:
” ‘Family’ is plural. ” Then you said: “I have never heard or seen my family are crazy,” which contradicts your first sentence. ‘Are’ is used for plural words while ‘is’ used for singular.

We go on talking English normally so we don’t notice things like this, only students when learning. When they see these things and mention it to me, everything conflicts in my mind and I end up totally confused.

@jleslie @iamthemob you got it right, ‘it’ isn’t used with people. So I REALLY don’t think ‘it’ is ever used with family. It sounds very rude.

@iamthemob Actually in that sentence (which my student made), the speaker is not with the family, since she lives alone but is talking about them. So we isn’t used in that case.

@wascry Yeah, I think ‘team’ is another case like family. However, ‘the team are playing right’ is not correct, although you may have heard it around. it’s ‘the team IS playing right.’

Stinley and Morphail explained it really good too. As i said, we never stop to notice these things, but when we do, we are like ‘what the?’

iamthemob's avatar

@robdamel – ahh – then it would probably be “they are” in that case. (the whole collective noun thing is an issue).

I forgot to read the options didn’t I. Leave it to me to say “it’s so easy!” and then miss out on what I should be seeing. ;-)

JLeslie's avatar

@robdamel I said family is plural?

JLeslie's avatar

Oh, I see where I said it. That was a mistake on my part, a mistype. You will see everywhere else I say it is singular.

DominicX's avatar

I would only use “it” in reference to “family” when speaking of “family” as a general concept. Family is what holds this country together. Without it…”

Otherwise, I would use “we” if I am talking about my family and me. If I were talking about my family apart from me, I would use “they”.

My family is crazy.
Our families are crazy.
My family eats out often because they never cook.*
My family and I eat out often because we never cook.
Family is a good thing because it holds this nation together.

*In this sentence, “we” would also work if you were talking about your family including yourself. If not, “they” would be appropriate. But in the sentence be below it, “we” is the only pronoun that would work.

PhiNotPi's avatar

Since the noun “family” is singular, the pronoun needs to be singular. The only thing that fits is “it.”

However, this is one of the most overlooked rules in grammer, so you should treat “family” as singular with verbs, but plural with pronouns, as is the case in @DominicX‘s example.

_zen_'s avatar

What if you are a childless orphan and have but one sibling? Your family isn’t a “they”, in that case. Yes, you could choose to say “my brother/sister” – but it was worded family because, well, you felt like writing family – which is what it is.

I like Dom’s explanation.

morphail's avatar

never mind

BarnacleBill's avatar

“It” refers to an object. “They” refers to people – I, me, he, she, them, they, we, you, us.

flo's avatar

“We are eating” out sounds right. I can’t give the reason why “it is” would be wrong. It just sounds wrong.

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