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Singulars and plurals are so different, bless my soul

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I'm a copy editor, and my job requires me to be familiar with American, Canadian and British English. In this particular area, U.S. and Canadian English are about the same, but I've noticed that in British English, collective nouns take plural verbs far more often than they do in American English.

In American, we say, "the team is/the family is/the group is." An exception is "couple," which can take a singular or plural verb depending on context. "Each couple is asked to contribute." "The couple are honeymooning at Niagara Falls." Then there's the weird case of singular sports team names, which the Associated Press Stylebook has declared take plural verbs: "The Miami Heat are in the playoffs." "The Utah Jazz have signed some new players."

I've noticed that British English tends to use far more plural verbs with collective nouns, and I sort of wish American English would go more in that direction. I've found it's very easy to get on the wrong side of the grammar police when deciding whether to go with a singular or plural verb is often a judgment call. Consider a sentence such as "Black Sabbath has released a new album, and they can't wait to go on tour." To my American ears, "Black Sabbath have released ..." sounds wrong. But so does "It' can't wait ..." when referring to a group of people.

Is this just a quirk of American/Canadian English, or do speakers of British English (and its variants such as Australian and South African English) have a similar issue?

BTW, virtual cookies to anyone who gets where this thread's title comes from.  ;D

Free Range Hippy Chick:
British English here, and fighting the good fight regarding the written word.


I'm conscious that what I'll say and what I'll write are often different, but I would agree with you on 'the team is/family is/group is'. I'm sitting here talking to myself, out loud, and I say 'the couple is'.

Sports teams, I think, is the same - are the same...

Bother. Recast that. :P

The case regarding sports teams is the same. 'Manchester United are playing', not 'is playing', although oddly, I think you would encounter both 'Liverpool have signed...' and 'Liverpool has signed'.

No, we have the same problem, and we have no consensus on whether 'The Media' is singular or plural.

I have tried all of your examples and I've discovered that I would use the plural in all of them. The singular didn't sound right to me in any of these.  I'm not sure if I'm a typical Aussie though.  I'll pay attention tomorrow to see what other people say.

In the case of
"Each couple is asked to contribute."
the word "is" applies to Each, not to couple.

So, the sentence would still contain "is" regardless of what each was referring to.
Each person is asked to contribute.
Each team is asked to contribute.
Each company is asked to contribute.

In the case of the sports teams, I'm guessing that the style was decided based on the fact that the majority of sports teams are named in the plural. Chicago Bears, New York Yankees, Houston Astros. Of coure it would be wrong to say, "The Houston Astros is playing tonight." So rather than differentiate the grammar between The Houston Astros and The Miami Heat, it just makes more sense to go ahead and consider them both to be plural.

One might think that the same could apply to musical groups. In the sentence, "Black Sabbath has released a new album", Black Sabbath is treated as a singular because it sounds like a singular. The same sentence, but with a different group, might not work. Obviously, you wouldn't say "The Beatles has released a new album".

A British gentleman I used to work with always used the plural verb when referring to companies. "Exxon are drilling in the Gulf" for example, when I would have said, "Exxon is drilling in the Gulf."

One thing that really ties me up is having to use both in the same sentence (I'm referring to written English here -- when I talk I'll break all kinds of rules!). It feels wrong to use "it" when referring to people, so if I have a "singular" collective noun, it may take a singular verb but a plural pronoun: "The family sends their regrets." "The band is on tour, and they are very excited about meeting their fans."

I tend to recast these to avoid the whole issue: "The Smiths send their regrets." "Kiss is on tour, and the band members are very excited about meeting their fans."

I shoot on sight any singular verbs used with "the media." Don't get me started on people who want to give me "a kudo."


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