Burning questions about teaching English in China #9: We are families!

Cover of Sister Sledge single (1984 remix of “We Are Family” and “My Guy/Canadian Sunset”, Cotillion label, Germany)

Puzzler #9: Why do Chinese students think they have more than one family?

Here’s another error I have seen fairly often — something like:

I can’t wait to go home and see my families.

While it is possible for someone to have more than one family — a person who was adopted, for example — usually each person has only one family. “Family” in English is a collective noun, which represents a collection of individual members. Your family consists of your parents, children, spouse, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.

So, probably you are going home to see your family, just as I am right now.

In the case of an adoptee or a foster child, he or she might have an adopted or foster family and a birth family. So, such a person could legitimately say they have two families, meaning two unrelated groups of family members.

The rest of us make do with just one.

Collective nouns can be considered plural or singular, grammatically speaking, which determines the verb form following the noun. As usual, English does not make this easy, as American and British usage differ.

AmE: My family is in Kentucky now. (singular noun)
BrE: My family are in Cornwall now. (plural noun)

This is true for other collective nouns, too.

AmE: The audience was enthusiastic!
BrE: The audience were enthusiastic!

AmE: Congress is in session.
BrE: Parliament are in session.

If you want to avoid confusion, you can rephrase the sentence to include the word “members,” which would require a plural verb no matter which version of English you’re using.

All the members of my family are in Hunan now.

To help you remember the American usage of “family”, here’s a song by the group Sister Sledge from 1979:

Tudou link for another video

We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up ev’rybody and sing
We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up ev’rybody and sing

Ev’ryone can see we’re together
As we walk on by
(Hey) and we fly just like birds of a feather
I won’t tell no lie
(ALL!) all of the people around us they say
Can they be that close
Just let me state for the record
We’re giving love in a family dose

We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up ev’rybody and sing
We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up ev’rybody and sing

Living life is fun and we’ve just begun
To get our share of the world’s delights
(HIGH!) high hopes we have for the future
And our goal’s in sight
(WE!) no we don’t get depressed
‘Cause here’s what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
You won’t go wrong
This is our family Jewel

We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up ev’rybody and sing
We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up ev’rybody and sing
We are family
We are family
We are family
We are family
We are family
We are family
We are family

Songwriters: Nile Rodgers / Bernard Edwards
Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Sledge sisters, Debby, Joni, Kim and Kathy, started performing before they were 21. “We Are Famiily” was their first international hit. Joni, who was the second oldest, died at age 60 last year. Her sisters still continue to perform.

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References:
English.stackexchange.com
Wikipedia

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