BRITISH COLLECTIVE PLURALS.

Most of us probably have a general sense that U.K. usage favors “the [group] are” where Americans say “the [group] is”; if you’re curious about the details, check out Mark Liberman’s post at the Log. He investigates committee and government, and discovers that the singular is favored overwhelmingly for the former and significantly for the latter; various commenters point out, however, that the plural is used for sports teams (“Arsenal have scored again”) and rock bands and record labels (“U2 are on tour,” “EMI have signed the Sex Pistols”). Interesting stuff; it’s always good to have a look at the facts before sinking into the easy chair of generalizations.

Comments

  1. Rupert Goodwins says:

    I work on a UK technology news/reviews web site. Our style guide on groups is that they are always singular – but some plurals still slip through to be caught by our all-star team in production. When I started writing for the paper predecessor to the site, it felt very awkward to use the singular in those cases, but now I couldn’t do it any other way.
    Most of the time.

  2. Interesting—I wonder if things are changing, and if so whether it’s because of American usage?

  3. American here; although tending toward the singular verb much of the time, I usually stop to consider whether the situation in question is intended to focus more on the group as a whole or its constituent members. In the case of the latter, I use plural verbs, even if I do sometimes get a sense it looks a bit British.

  4. In Australia, you’d say the following in relation to my Australian Rules football team:
    – The Richmond Tigers are never going to win a game (always plural)
    – Richmond is never going to win a game or Richmond are never going to win a game (either is correct)

  5. Siganus Sutor says:

    Very often, while writing letters or e-mails, I hesitate when coming to a company name. “Delta Contracting has/have commenced the works on the 4th July”; “Rogers is/are late”; etc. Most of the time it’s in the singular, but not always. It seems to depend on the mood, or some random brain (mal)function.

  6. My evidence-free impression is that in the US people tend to use singular verbs with corporate nouns like company names but then use plural pronouns to refer to them. So it’s “Microsoft is”, but later “they are”.

  7. John Emerson says:

    I have decided that “media” is singular or plural depending on what seems right. I actually have an idea about how to explain when you should use which, but there’s no real reason to make the rule more explicit than I just did.

  8. John Emerson says:

    I have decided that “media” is singular or plural depending on what seems right. I actually have an idea about how to explain when you should use which, but there’s no real reason to make the rule more explicit than I just did.

  9. This was a very difficult topic for my advanced class in Jordan. After working through a dozen or so confusing examples, they were trying to find a principle to apply that would cover every situation. In addition, British English is still pretty official, at least in public schools (and the Jordan Timesproofreaders from India) and there is still a huge British influence even if it did switch to American foreign aide in the days of the late King Hussein. Jordanian students expect a teacher to tell them something definite, so finally I told them if they are taking a British placement test use plural and if they are taking an American test, use singular.

  10. AJP Crown says:

    I find both ‘Arsenal is the most pathetic team in the English League’ and ‘Arsenal have always been supported by scumbags’ to be acceptable.

  11. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I wouldn’t use ‘Rogers is late’ because it implies that the person rather than the company is late whereas ‘Rogers are late’ isn’t even grammatical unless you’re talking about the company.

  12. Extracts from yesterday’s Queen’s speech to Parliament (full speech here)
    “My government is committed to helping families and businesses through difficult times”
    “My government is committed to ensuring everyone has a fair chance in life”
    “My government is committed to the Northern Ireland political process …”
    So, Queen’s English seems to favour singular!
    More plurals from the British National Corpus in this post.

  13. I find both ‘Arsenal is the most pathetic team in the English League’ and ‘Arsenal have always been supported by scumbags’ to be acceptable. You could of course be finding the opinions acceptable, rather than the syntax! (Maybe the ambiguity was intentional).
    I generally follow the (claimed to be standard) British practice of using the singular with “committee” if I’m thinking of it as a single entity, and plural if I thinking of it as a collection of members. One of the commenters at LanguageLog said As a Brit, I’d use either singular or plural agreement, but definitely singular in the Disrali example you cited. “A Shehaab committee were appointed…” would be wrong for me, probably because the article forces it to be singular. I agree with him about the article, but I don’t think it’s the only reason why a plural would be absurd, and I think it would be singular even if the article were The. At the moment of creation a committee doesn’t have any members and hasn’t done anything, so it’s singular.
    I read long ago that in the days when the (London) Times was a serious newspaper the editorial policy was that Her Majesty’s Government took a capital G and a plural verb, whereas the government of anywhere else took a lower-case g and a singular verb. However, I don’t now if this is authentic. Although this is obviously snobbish it has a certain logic — one tends to think of one’s own countries government as a set of individuals, but foreign governments as more monolithic.

  14. Siganus Sutor says:

    Crown: I wouldn’t use ‘Rogers is late’ because it implies that the person rather than the company is late whereas ‘Rogers are late’ isn’t even grammatical unless you’re talking about the company.
    As I said, I was talking about companies.
    > Rogers & Co Ltd

  15. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Put it this way, I always supported Chelsea.

  16. A.J.P. Crown says:

    So Rogers & Co Ltd uses ‘it’. I suggest that whatever I say in the future about English usage, do the opposite, Sig, and you won’t go far wrong.

  17. Siganus Sutor says:

    It also uses pompous capitals it seems: “… engaging its 3000 employees into becoming customer focused individuals enthusiastically driving their brands in a shared spirit of Leadership, Openness and Dynamism.”
    I like people like that. They know what are the Important Things in Life.
    I suggest that whatever I say in the future about English usage, do the opposite, Sig, and you won’t go far wrong.
    Er? Why this statement?

  18. AJP Crown says:

    How can you have a shared spirit of leadership?

  19. By being a hydra maybe?
    BTW, the hydra was or were killed by Heracles?

  20. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    The General Theory of Panties is in pieces. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Then I suggested using pl. for Rogers & Co., where they themselves use sing. So I’m very consistent.

  21. The General Theory of Panties is in pieces.
    Not so much in my view. It is just a particular case of the String Theory, which itself hasn’t been fully studied. It is therefore quite an open question still.
    (If I were you I wouldn’t rely that much on what that Rogers guy’s English — nor for that matter would I trust any Martian. “Anglais je conne, français je débrie”, as that local humorist used to say.)

  22. Siganus Sutor says:

    “I wouldn’t rely that much on what that Rogers guy’s English”
    The proof are in the pudding.

  23. AJP Crown says:

    Yes it was. Look at this German hydra drawing. They are all facing the same way, they have zer shared spirit of leadership.

  24. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    I think you have to say the hydra ‘was’, otherwise what happens when a couple of hydra come along?
    But tell me what you think. Two heads are better than one.

  25. Here y’are, AC-B, copied and pasted straight out of The Times‘s own internal styleguide:
    ‘cap all governments, British and overseas, when referring to a specific one, eg, “the Government resigned last night”, “the Argentine Government sent troops”, and specific past administrations such as “the Heath Government”; only l/c when unspecific or one that has yet to be formed, eg, “all the governments since the war”, or “the next Tory/Labour government would raise pensions”.’
    and on plurals: ‘make corporate bodies and institutions singular unless this looks odd. Thus “The National Trust is …”, but sports teams are plural, eg, “Arsenal were worth their 8-0 lead”. Whether singular or plural, always maintain consistency within a story’

  26. AJP Crown says:

    “Arsenal have scored again”
    “Arsenal were worth their 8-0 lead”

    What is going on here? Are Arsenal sponsoring this post, Language? If you’re looking for sponsors you should know that Chelsea have way more money than Arsenal. What’s more, Chelsea are owned by a Russian person.
    I could never have used singular pronouns there. ‘Chelsea is owned by a Russian person’ would imply you were talking about the place rather than the team.

  27. Chelsea the place is probably owned by a Russian person by now as well. I’ll go see if the Russians will give me large sums to make “Chelsea” the subject of all example sentences from now on.

  28. AJP Crown says:

    That is the same in American. ‘Pittsburg wear funny outfits’ would be the baseball team, whereas ‘Pittsburg wears funny outfits’ would imply either nothing at all or some kind of cartoon with superheros dressing cities up in uniforms.

  29. I think I once saw “The committee have a mind to ….”.

  30. Kron, have you ever actually met an American person?

  31. Ask down at the INS they’ll tell you I am one myself. So is my mother. And my daughter.
    Ok, you’re right, i haven’t actually met one.

  32. How many minds does or do the hydra have?

  33. Odd – is anyone else having trouble with LL feed? I don’t seem to have been notified of anything this week.

  34. I work for a British company whose name sounds like a plural, “…ers”, and the preferred copyediting housestyle is singular rather than plural (“…ers is”, not “…ers are”). That does seem to be the prevailing UK English style.

  35. A fascinating discussion that has taught me many things, including that fact that I am apparently a scumbag, as was my favourite author, the late Douglas Adams. On a usage not, here in Zild the pattern is similar to that cited in the AFL example. Thus, I could say either, AJP Crown’s ranting notwithstanding, Arsenal are my favourite team” or, “Arsenal was Douglas Adams’ favourite team”. Victoria concordia crescit.

  36. is anyone else having trouble with LL feed?
    LL changed their feed ages ago and I even noticed a month or so later. Here is the home page where you can subscribe to their RSS. Hmm, I don’t see any RSS Comments Feed there either, hint, hint.

  37. Kron, no American would ever say “Pittsburg wear funny outfits,” or even “Pittsburgh wear…” That’s the kind of thing we fought a Revolution to get out from under.

  38. AJP Crown says:

    I’m very sorry Stuart, I don’t even watch football but Arsenal is bigger than both of us, literally* like a red rag to a bull for me. I grew up in North London, and I’ve supported Chelsea for 47 years. I don’t mind Fulham, Spurs, any other North London team really. Just not… Arsenal. Why in the world would a New Zealander support Arsenal? I met a family of Norwegians once who supported Arsenal and they thought I’d be so pleased to hear it (I wasn’t rude). I’m sorry to hear Douglas Adams supported Arsenal. If anyone seems like a Tottenham supporter it’s him. Anyway watching sport is a complete waste of time. I hate pineapple too.
    *would take too long to explain

  39. AJP Crown says:

    Kron, no American would ever say “Pittsburg wear funny outfits,”
    God, haven’t you noticed? They have these really odd-looking little hats.

  40. The style, as noted above, is that “companies are singular but unemployed journalists are plural”, as a (rather unpleasant) boss of mine used to put it. This does lead to some apparent infelicities: “Lehman Brothers is in trouble” and “Allen & Overy is a law firm” for example.
    Sports teams are plural.
    But, here’s the tricky bit, many sports teams are also companies (listed on the stock exchange in some cases). So whether Arsenal is one or many depends, in general terms, on whether it’s appearing in the business pages or the sports pages.
    “Arsenal is in need of additional financing” but “Arsenal have started the season badly with a resounding defeat”.

  41. AJP Shadowy Figure says:

    Or Chelsea. Same rule applies, probably.

  42. Siganus Sutor says:

    Virtual Linguist: “My government is committed to the Northern Ireland political process …”
    So, Queen’s English seems to favour singular!

    The BBC too: “Opposition politician Omar Barboza said it would strengthen the actions of a government which persecutes and harasses those who do not think as it does.”
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7769685.stm
    (Opposition damns Chavez vote bid
    Saturday, 6 December 2008)

  43. AJP-2008: While there are a number of places in the States called Pittsburg, none of them has a major-league sports team. The one that does is Pittsburgh, spelled like (but definitely not pronounced like) Edinburgh.

    Though I grant that with places called Allegheny, Alleghany, and Allegany (more locally, Taghkanic, Taconic, and Taughannock), American onomastics is no easy matter.

  44. Not to mention Hoosic, Hoosac, and Hoosick.

  45. Hoosick? Passumsick.

  46. January First-of-May says:

    My younger brother had recently been surprised, and apparently sad, that Arsenal ended up all the way down to sixth place. (We live much closer to London than New Zealand, but a bit farther than Norway.)

    I’m personally lately a fan of Lester (or Leichester? I never seem to be sure if it’s one or the other), thanks to their funny name, and unexpected first place in the league. And of Costa Rica, who were first in their group at World Cup 2014 (though I’ve been a fan of them since slightly earlier, can’t recall why).

    [In my local league, I’m traditionally a fan of Moskva – a team that doesn’t seem to exist anymore – and lately of Rostov, for much the same reason as Lester/Leichester. Brother seems to prefer Zenit, so after yesterday’s match we really didn’t agree with each other.]

  47. David Marjanović says:

    Leicester?

  48. January First-of-May says:

    Leicester?

    Yes, that (and I wasn’t entirely serious when describing it).

  49. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    The pronunciation of Leicester is strange, but it’s by no means the only one: Worcester, Gloucester, Bicester and Towcester are all pronounced as if the “ce” wasn’t there. Some people add Cirencester to that list (pronouncing it like “sister”), but I think that’s an affectation and the people who live there pronounce it as spelt (and abbreviate it to “Ciren”).

  50. Here in Massachusetts we’ve got a Leicester, a Gloucester and (my birthplace) Worcester, all pronounced in the English way – although a minority of Worcester natives do say [ˈwɪs]ter rather than [ˈwʊs]ter. Among non-New Englanders, you’ll hear [ˈwɔɚˌtʃɛstɚ], [ˈwɔɚˌsɛstɚ], [ˈwɚːstɚ] and [ˈwʊustɚ].

  51. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Athel Cornish-Bowden: the actual list is longer. I knew a guy from Frocester /ˈfɹ̠ɒ.stə/.

    I thought we’d talked about this in a previous thread, but it seems I was mistaken.

  52. “Sissiter” is not so much an affectation as obsolete, though anything obsolete can become an affectation, I suppose. In the book The Queen, which is about supreme examples of things (I have only heard of it, not read it, and I can’t find the author), the queen of affectations is said to be that of pretending to forget your native language and having to use another.

  53. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    A Hungarian friend of mine in Toronto told me that many of the people who left Hungary after 1956 made a conscious effort to lose their native language and that some essentially succeeded. He told me this after he visited me in Birmingham in the early 1980s and was surprised and pleased that the Hungarian wife of a colleague was both able and willing to speak to him in Hungarian. On the other hand I knew another Hungarian, who was probably the last sincere believer in communism in the whole country, who told me that a very distinguished Hungarian scientist that he met at a meeting (not all that long after 1956) claimed that he was unable to speak Hungarian.

  54. During my childhood, our family doctor was a native francophone from far northern Maine – but he spoke native-like English and told us that his French was rusty from disuse.

    My father (born here) also tells me that Yiddish was his sole language until he went to school around the age of 4, but he’s not fluent in it today.

  55. Lazar: Actually forgetting your native language is different from pretending to forget it. Then there’s the Red Queen’s advice to Alice: “Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing”. Since Alice could barely manage to say “Ou est ma chatte?” (described as “the first sentence in her French lesson-book”) six months earlier, it’s pretty unlikely that this advice will actually be useful.

  56. True – I was just going on a bit of a tangent there.

  57. @John Cowan: The best part of that is that the Red Queen is Alice’s cat, whom she is holding onto in her sleep.

  58. January First-of-May says:

    @John Cowan: The best part of that is that the Red Queen is Alice’s cat, whom she is holding onto in her sleep.

    Not the same cat though. That one was Dinah, this one is Kitty (who had apparently been born sometime after the events of the first book).
     

    As for actually pretending to forget one’s real language… that was apparently (and sadly) relatively common among native Irish speakers in the non-Gaeltacht areas of Ireland.

    Anna Korosteleva describes a story where a linguist researching Irish was sent to find a certain guy said to be a native speaker of Irish… then, upon getting there, the linguist was told by said guy’s son that, um, the guy in question doesn’t speak any Irish? Then the guy (who was about 90 years old) happened to arrive from the back room, the linguist greeted him in Irish, the guy replied back. Turned out he really was a native speaker.

    (It’s a lot more interesting in the original, but I’m not sure I could do justice to Anna Korosteleva’s style, so here‘s her post directly.)

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