I have some things to say about markedness, variation, and the role of habits in creating meaning. And I was planning to say them this morning, taking as a starting point the US/UK difference in verb agreement with collective nouns like government and committee that Geoff Pullum cited in his recent post "More on verb agreement as a judgment call":
It is a curious fact that American English strongly favors the use of the singular with subject nouns like committee (likewise nouns denoting companies, teams, departments, governments, etc.), while British English clearly prefers the plural.
But then I made the mistake of checking into the facts. This was not because I doubted Geoff — on the contrary, my impression of the situation agreed with his — but because I wanted to provide not only some examples but also some numbers, in my usual humorless hyper-empirical style.
Geoff himself laid out a plan for research:
Just search on Google for sequences like "the government are" or "the government is" and note the typical provenance of the pages. It's only a tendency, it's not absolute; but from casual observation both sides of the Atlantic I find it striking.
In order not to have to check provenance, I decided instead to start by comparing the U.S. Congressional Record with the U.K. Hansard (the traditional name for the published transcripts of British parliamentary debates, founded in 1802 by the prominent proto-wingnut William Cobbett, who blogged under the name of Peter Porcupine).
And in case you don't want to slog through the details below, here's the executive summary: I found that in British parliamentary material from the past year, committee seems to take singular agreement as much as a thousand times more often than plural agreement; while government takes singular agreement roughly twice as often as plural agreement. This is almost certainly more plural-preference than I'll find in the Congressional Record and other U.S. sources — though I'm going to hold judgment until I look — and the difference may still support the point that I still plan to make, some other day, about markedness and meaning. But it's far from confirming that "British English clearly prefers the plural".
For my first experiment, I looked at committee in the Hansard index at the site theyworkforyou.com. A search for the string "committee were" during 2008 so far ("committee were" 20080101..20081201) turned up 86 results — and all but one of these were spurious, e.g.:
… that is what their regulators and the Monetary Policy Committee were saying last year …
… if the deliberating process of a Select Committee or any other Committee were an open matter, the proper deliberation of a report would be thoroughly undermined.
However, Members of the Committee were surprised when we went to Finland and Sweden to be told that they were great admirers of our system
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that Lord Carlile's statements to the Committee were inaccurate and misleading?
None of those high standards of consultation with the Committee were observed.
The single example one that seems genuine is:
The Rural Affairs and Environment Committee were provided with a list of all schemes including those under construction or ready for construction.
(And this one is a bit suspect, given the conjunction in what I take to be the the committee name.)
In contrast, searching for "committee was" for the year to date ("committee was" 20080101..20081201) produced 1,922 results. Sampling the first 60, I found that 45 were genuine — things like
… the committee was duly grateful to Jackie Baillie and her advisers for untying his legal knots …
… the Committee was told that that figure could rise to 8,000 by the end of the year …
As a result of previous debates in this House and in the other place, the Chilcot committee was established.
It was rather appropriate that we should have had a Planning Bill and an Energy Bill at the same time as the committee was deliberating.
The committee was concerned that there should be clear and unambiguous guidance to Minister generally setting out the principles governing public comment by Ministers on individual judges.
Since 45*1922/60 = 1442, we can estimate that the Hansard prefers were to was in the case of committee by more than a thousand to one.
Could this be some quirk of Hansard copy editors? I don't think so. Looking over a few centuries of British literature, we find Benjamin Disraeli, in Tancred:
A Shehaab committee was appointed, with perpetual sittings at Deir El Kamar, the most considerable place in the Lebanon, and, although it was chiefly composed of Christians, there were several Druses at least in correspondence with it.
Or Anthony Trollope, in Chapter IV of The Three Clerks:
The bridge committee was sitting and his shares were already worth more than he had paid for them.
Looking at current U.K. news writing, we find The Guardian telling us that
Lord Turner said the committee was not intended to recommend short-term policies.
And the Sentinel notes that
Youth-team manager Adrian Pennock approached the referee for an explanation of his decision when the final whistle blew a few seconds later, while an even warmer reception committee was doubtless awaiting him up the tunnel.
A search of Google News U.K. for "committee were" turns up only a few genuine examples. One is a quotation at fifa.com attributed to a Brazilian soccer player:
At that time, substitutions were still not permitted, so Amarildo had to wait until the Spain came before he could take to the field. "The selection committee were a big help, all they said to me was to ‘play like you do for Botafogo'. That wasn't too hard because, apart from Vava, the forward line was exactly the same: Didi, Garrincha, [Mario] Zagallo and I," says the player, who also remembers Pele's warm congratulations after the victory against La Furia Roja.
Another is a story on www.sailing.org about the ISAF Annual Conference in Madrid, where we learn that
At the Oceanic Sub-Committee meeting, there was broad support for Submission 125-08, which will create a new Oceanic and Offshore Committee (in place of the Oceanic Sub-Committee and Offshore Committee) for 2009-12. In addition, the Committee were keen to see the proposed Oceanic Panel expanded to include event organizers and oceanic yacht racing classes as well as Committee members.
A story on epolitix.com tells us that
The select committee were looking into the office's affairs after auditors issued a qualified opinion on its accounts for 2005/06.
Turning to more authoritative sources, Samuel Johnson, writing about Matthew Prior in Lives of the Poets:
When he had signed the paper, he was told by Walpole, that the committee were not satisfied with his behaviour, nor could give such an account of it to the Commons as might merit favour; and that they now thought a stricter confinement necessary than to his own house.
But overall, the evidence is that U.K. writers overwhelmingly choose singular agreement with committee — at least when forms of to be are at issue.
Could the situation be different when we look at the agreement of committee with other verbs? Not very much, it seems.
In the Hansard for the year to date, "committee have" has 4,416 hits. but almost all of these are again not relevent:
the deliberations we had in this Chamber and in Committee have been useful,
We on the Defence Committee have just published our 14th report
Members of the Committee have already commented on the fact that this is the 13th year in succession that we have not had what I would describe as a clean bill of health.
Looking at the first 200, I could only find two that are genuine examples of plural agreement with committee:
As Members will be aware, the Executive Committee have set a target of 3% efficiency savings per annum for each Department.
The Intelligence and Security Committee have been fully briefed on Sir David's investigation and recommendations and the action that the Government are taking.
This would suggest that only about 2*4416/200 = 44 were genuine overall.
A search of UK News for "committee have" does turn up a certain number of genuine examples of plural agreement among the 552 hits, and not only from Brazilian footballers and sailing-association officials in Spain:
Sutton St Edmund village hall committee have spent around £1000 on security to protect the oil tank from thieves.
The Monetary Policy Committee have shown an appetite for strong action and more is required.
The council's planning committee have indicated they will refuse proposals to develop a windfarm on Mynydd James mountain.
The theatre club and hall committee have sought legal advice from north-east solicitor Harvey Aberdein, managing partner of Aberdein Considine.
We revealed that the Willie Gallacher Monument Appeal Committee have been given the go-ahead to build a £250,000 statue at the junction of High Street and New Street in tribute to Gallacher.
However, "committee has" yields 9,910 hits in the UK version of Google News, and a large fraction of these seem to be relevant:
The committee has prepared two sets of carbon budgets
The committee has seen some excellent examples of joint working to tackle domestic abuse in Wales
This is the first time in more than 50 years that the International Olympic Committee has rejected an Olympic media rights pitch from European Broadcasting
The Saltire Prize Challenge Committee has tasked the world's leading scientists and innovators to design, build and test a renewable marine energy device
Melville says the committee has been surprised by such a wide use of technology and the drop in time young people spend watching TV
Wrexham Borough Council’s planning committee has agreed by nine votes to two to approve the scheme for more than 200 houses on land near Erddig Hall.
Similarly, in the U.K. Hansard index for the year to date, "committee has" registers 2,701 hits, a large proportion of which are relevant –
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate.
As has been said, the Health Committee has spent a considerable amount of time on the Health and Social Care (Reform) Bill
The Committee has had a good working relationship with officials from the Department
The scheme was proposed very late, so the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has not had a chance to consider them.
I judge 44 of the first 60 hits to be genuine instances of singular agreement, which extrapolates to 44*2701/60 = 1981, or about 50 times the estimated number for "committee have".
1 in 50 is much better odds than the 1 in 1,000 that we estimated for "committee were" vs. "committee was", but plural agreement is still overwhelmingly in the minority.
Just to verify that this is not somehow special to auxiliaries, searching the Hansard for "committee believe", from 1/1/2007 to today, turns up just one genuine example of plural agreement:
Our report of late January covered the events leading to that support operation and the subsequent run, guarantees and proposed reforms, which the Committee believe will prevent a recurrence of these problems.
In contrast, a search for the pattern "committee believes", over the same time period, turns up 54 examples like these:
The committee believes that working in partnership could bring benefits to those companies and have a significant effect on reducing the abuse of disabled parking bays.
The committee believes that such a report would be an effective way for the judiciary to be accountable and hope to see it published on an annual basis.
Our committee believes that the single market of the future should be based on a much more liberalised European economy …
My Committee believes that that policy does not comply with the House of Lords judgment and we have called for section 55 to be repealed
… although I notice that the European Scrutiny Committee believes that the Government have not made their case about that
This suggests again a 50-1 preference for the singular. (But there's a "Government have" in the last example!)
British news sources seem to be consistent with this pattern of strong singular preference for committee. For example, searching The Guardian for the year 2008 turns up 6 examples where committee takes singular believes vs. none for plural believe.
OK, my breakfast blogging time is almost up, and I still haven't figured out where those plural-preferring Brits are hiding. So let's skip to government.
Here the Hansard results are bit more promising. Searching for "government were" 20080101..20081201 yields 4,333 results. And checking the first 60 examples, I find that 31 are genuine examples of plural agreement, e.g.:
You can see from that press release that at that time, back in 2001, the Government were minded to go ahead.
We face a huge number of amendments from the Government and just a sprinkling from the Opposition—ones on which the Government were defeated in the Lords or that the Government were good enough to accept.
The Government were very sympathetic to workers at JCB who accepted a reduction in pay in order to try to remain competitive and keep their jobs
There's even one were government takes plural agreement while department is singular, just a few words away:
While the Government were giving those assurances, the Government Actuary's Department was asleep on the job.
So let's estimate that 31*4333/60 = 2239, i.e. something more than 2,000 of these instances of government, took plural agreement.
But searching the same source for "government was" 20080101..20081201 yields 7,415 results, and a good fraction of them are genuine instances of plural agreement:
At the last major defence debate in this House on 22 November 2007, the Government was flayed by our former Chiefs of the Defence Staff in an unprecedented way.The Minister confirmed that her government was taking this issue very seriously and providing necessary assistance.
The Falkland Islands Government was regularly consulted while the Feasibility Study was being carried out and any future decisions will be made in consultation with the Falkland Islands Government.
The Government was pleased with the outcome of the Union of South American Nations' (UNASUR) summit meeting on 15 September.
In 1974, local government was paralysed by reorganisation for up to three years, and I have to say to the Minister that there is good evidence that we are seeing a repeat performance right now in Wiltshire.
Again checking the first 60, I found 34 examples of genuine plural agreement, suggesting that 34*7415/60 = 4201, or something more than 4,000 of these were genuine instances of singular agreement.
So for government as head of the subject, the Hansards for 2008 to date yield roughly twice as many instances of singular agreement as plural agreement.
The odds are again improving — we're up to one chance in three for government to be construed as plural when the verb is was or were. But so far, this looks like an instance of the frequency illusion — because the Brits use the plural with collective noun subjects more often than Americans do, we falsely conclude that this is the norm for them. And we generalize this tendency from cases where they do it fairly often (government) to cases where they hardly ever do it at all (committee).