The Knights: a singular sensation, or a potent plural?


The Knights — a young, energetic New York-based orchestra that’s taking the city and the world by storm (especially when it gives its summer concerts in Central Park’s Bandshell) — is something of a grammatical conundrum when it comes to conjugating verbs around it.

Had I begun that sentence without the clause identifying it as an orchestra — “The Knights is something of a grammatical conundrum” — it would have sounded, well, weird. And that’s because The Knights is an inherently plural name, at least linguistically: it is the name of a group of musicians who call themselves “The Knights” when they’re playing together as one ensemble, just as the famous four from Liverpool called themselves “Beatles”, and that other British band described their members together as “Rolling Stones”. Musically the groups are each a single entity and respectively a singular sensation (as Marvin Hamlisch wrote deliberately and ambiguously about his famous chorus line). But would you ever expect to hear the statement “The Beatles was a British pop band”? Probably not. Whereas Radiohead “is” likely to be talked about in singular form, as Paste magazine did just a couple of weeks back, when it wrote that “Radiohead has helped set the bar for what a music video can be”, and that “Radiohead is known for its animated and cinematic music videos”. And that’s because Radiohead doesn’t have an inherent plural in its name.

An earlier Glossophilia post looked at the conjugation of verbs for collective nouns, which can be singular or plural depending on a number of factors — including what side of the Atlantic you live on. Curiously, it’s very common for the Brits to give collective nouns and names — especially of bands and sports teams — plural verb forms, even when the name is definitively single. If you Google the words “Radiohead are”, your results will return mainly British writers and publications. A search on “Radiohead is” delivers comments on the band from the rest of the world.

But there’s something specific, and endlessly debatable, about groups, bands, teams, duos, troupes or ensembles of any kind that have plural nouns in their very names and how they should be treated linguistically, and this sets them aside from the rest of the collective noun debate. Not only is it grating on the ear to hear a collection of nouns with an ‘s’ acting as a single grammatical subject (“The Decemberists is coming soon”, “The Rockettes is on TV”), but it’s also at odds with what’s in our mind’s eye, which is a collection of people doing something together and not a single object or entity. Yet when the name is singular, our ears don’t have the same problem.

Colin and Eric Jacobsen, the brothers who founded The Knights, also make up half the personnel of the renowned string quartet Brooklyn Rider. It doesn’t sound odd when we hear that “Brooklyn Rider is all about the number four” (as NPR Music said in its review of the quartet’s CD Seven Steps), and yet when the New York Times sets the brothers’ other ensemble (the orchestra) up for comparison with others like it, the writer, Zachary Woolfe, is at pains to keep it plural as its name demands, despite his phrasing that starts out decidedly singular: “Is there another orchestra that seems to be having as much fun when it plays as The Knights do?”

Slightly off the subject, but relevant nonetheless, is an amusing lexical issue that a famous movie ran into during its theatrical pre-release. Before Alfred Hitchcock’s avian thriller of 1963 arrived in cinemas, the slogan for the movie’s ad campaign read: “The birds is coming!” I bet Hitchcock didn’t see that one coming …