The Taliban Are Plural

This is a (rare) timely post for the blog, and I wish it weren’t keyed to a somber occurrence, the Taliban’s taking control of Afghanistan. But it is, and that turn of events has been accompanied by headlines such as this.

Note the verb” “control” rather than “controls.” Wes Davis wondered if this was an example of American adoption of the British style of singular plural verb for collective noun, such as “Parliament have adjourned” or “Chelsea are expected to win today.” [Note: As commenters have pointed out, I was apparently wrong in saying that “Parliament” frequently, or maybe ever, takes a plural verb. A better example would be “the government are,” which I wrote about here. That post also contains links to previous discussions of this issue.]

The answer to Wes’s question is, in a word, no. Or mostly no. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary describes “Taliban” as a plural noun and explains: “Pashto & Persian ṭālibān, plural of ṭālib student, seeker, from Arabic.”

Recognizing this, the Associated Press and National Public Radio treat the word as plural. I don’t have access to the New York Times style guide but judging by this headline and other examples, that paper appears to follow suit.

Google Books Ngram Viewer, working from a broad database of printed sources, shows that in America, the plural and singular were roughly equal until about the year 2000, when the plural form began to gain some separation.

Now, is that increased popularity a result of the NOOBs phenomenon? It’s impossible at this point to say, but it’s nice to think so.

12 thoughts on “The Taliban Are Plural

    1. Always seems to grate when it’s applied to popular beat combos too …

      Whilst it may be true to say “The Beatles is a band” (or was) it grates to my English ears

      1. I don’t think anybody says “The Beatles is a band.” The issue comes in something like “Led Zeppelin is playing tonight”/”Led Zeppelin are playing tonight.” I think British would say only the latter and Americans might say either one.

      2. What about sports teams? Would Americans say “the Yankees are” or “the Yankees is” ? Does it depend whether you mean the players or the organisation?

      3. Always “the Yankees are.” And we would even say “The Miami Heat are playing tomorrow.” You might sometimes hear “The Miami Heat drafts so-and-so with its first pick.” That is, can vary as to players or organization for singular team names like Miami Heat, Utah Jazz, Chicago Fire.

      1. Just to clarify the above: Parliament is a single entity whereas Chelsea are a team of individuals.

    2. The point is that “taliban” isn’t a grammatically singular collective noun, but that it’s grammatically plural in Arabic. (Persian and Pashtu generally – there are exceptions – retain the Arabic plurals of borrowed Arabic words, though they don’t go so far as to borrow the dual forms). So this isn’t the British style; it’s the extra careful style that recognizes the singular/plural categorization of words according to the grammar of the words’ source languages. Thus saying “the taliban are” is analogous to saying “the data show . . .” or “the phenomena are . . .”

  1. I don’t think we would say “Parliament have adjourned” but that “Both Houses of Parliament have adjourned”

  2. I’m a BBC journalist: our style guide too makes the Taliban plural, for the reason you have stated. It’s not one of those absurb Britishisms (like “police”, “cabinet” or any sports team.)

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