Where are all those British collective plurals?

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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).


  1. MaW said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 10:36 am

    My subjective impression is that it may well vary between words, and context. We Brits certainly use both, although one must never ignore the influence of possibly-singular-preferring American authors whose work is so often read over here.

    Although I do tend to go plural more often on some things. For example, in Jonathan Coulton's song 'Skullcrusher Mountain', there is a line which goes "While up above the waves my doomsday squad ignites the atmosphere" which I always think is wrong – I'd have written "ignite". What's odd is that I have no idea why. I'll happy talk about 'a squad', but sometimes it just seems that I have to refer to the squad in a plural form, usually when they're taking some action. I'm sort of thinking as I go here, but it might be that there's the impression that a squad is composed of multiple independent people, who collectively perform a task and therefore you have to use plural forms of the verb when talking about a squad doing something.

    I could start arguing that it shows a greater respect for the individuality of the squad members, but I doubt that sort of calculation is going on in my mind. I picked it up from somewhere as I learned English, and that's about the end of it.

    As for 'committee' and 'government', I've seen and used both plural and singular verbs with each of them. Subjectively though, I think I would usually prefer the plural.

  2. Peter Howard said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 10:44 am

    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.

    BTW, "Hansard" is normally anarthrous, I believe.

  3. Morten Jonsson said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 10:48 am

    That's interesting about "committee" and "government." I think the generalization is still true about teams, though, as a comparison of references to Manchester United and its namesake, D.C. United, should show. I'm sorry I'm not competent to do a proper Google breakdown, but it does seem that while the American club does often take the plural (United are), perhaps from fans aware of the British usage, it's more likely to take the singular. And the reverse is true for the British club.

  4. James said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 11:15 am

    I was going to make the suggestion that I've just read from Morten Jonsson. I'll add this hypothesis: talk or writing of a committee or government is apt to occur in a moral formal register; of a sports team in a less formal register. I know (more from chatting with Australians than with Brits) that plural agreement with a collective noun is considered by at least some to have an informal flavor.
    I believe the Boston Globe will *never* say "Boston were able to score at will against the Chicago defense," whereas I bet an English newspaper will frequently say things like "Manchester were able to control the pace against Cheltenham." And similarly for an announcer, and if formality of register is the right explanation then announcers will use plural agreement even more often than sports writers.

  5. Mr Punch said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    It's a different kind of "collective noun," but I have no doubt that "General Motors" can take a plural verb in British, but not American, English. This is similar to the sports team case, I think (note that American team names are traditionally though not invariable plural, e.g., Red Sox) but the plural-verb usage occurs in relatively formal contexts.

  6. John Cowan said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 11:45 am

    It's true that Cobbett was a wingnut in his Peter Porcupine stage, but he became more and more of a moonbat after Government (anarthrous) kicked him repeatedly in the teeth. He was also the author of a truly charming Grammar of the English Language in the form of letters to his son, but whose subtitle proclaims that it was "Intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in general; but, more especially for the Use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-boys."

    Once you get past Cobbett's odd use of etymology for morphology, most of what he has to say is quite reasonable for its day: for example, he has a fairly clear grasp of the distinction between case and Case, though not of course the modern typographical convention. As an example of his style, here's his very sensible comment on regional accents:

    In some counties of England many words are pronounced in a manner different from that in which they are pronounced in other counties; and, between the pronunciation of Scotland and that of Hampshire the difference is very great indeed. But, while all inquiries into the causes of these differences are useless, and all attempts to remove them are vain, the differences are of very little real consequence.

    For instance, though the Scotch say coorn, the Londoners cawn, and the Hampshire folks carn, we know that they all mean to say corn. Children will pronounce as their fathers and mothers pronounce; and, if, in common conversation, or in speeches, the matter be good and judiciously arranged, the facts clearly stated, the arguments conclusive, the words well-chosen and properly placed, hearers, whose approbation is worth having, will pay very little attention to the accent.

    Forcibly dragging myself back on-topic, I suspect though I have no proof that the use of formally singular nouns with plural agreement is an innovation (American English is usually the more conservative dialect, though not in everything), and therefore that negative evidence from older authors may well predate the innovation and should be discarded; this would tend to agree with James's view that the agreement mismatch is more frequent in informal registers, since formal registers tend to preserve older rules.

    I dimly remember reading in some prescriptivist manual that one ought to say "The jury is agreed" but "The jury are disagreed", because in the first case they are acting as a collective, whereas in the second case they obviously are not. This may have been a joke, however.

  7. Jasper Milvain said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 11:57 am

    The rule you're taught on journalism courses in Britain is to prefer singular, with an exception for sports teams: the standard joke is that it's important to preserve the distinction between "England are defeated" (common) and "England is defeated" (less so).

    Sports teams seem to remain plural even in what is otherwise a relatively formal register – listen to Test Match Special and you will hear the Australian commentators use singulars and the English ones use plurals.

    But the style guides of the Guardian and Times both emphasise that there is flexibility on singular in other contexts (see under "collective nouns" in each case):



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  9. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

    My own British Sprachgefuehl (notoriously unsafe guide to the actual facts, I know) agrees with the other posters that the plural agreement is less formal.

    I have an equally vague and probably easily falsifiable feeling that American public language tends to be relatively more formal than British, which could account for the difference if it's real – how many informal committees are there out there compared with the pompous kind?

  10. James said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

    I think US usage might *sound* more formal to the British, but as a matter of fact you won't find plural verbs with collective nouns even in informal usage in the US.

    Mr Punch notes that American team names tend to be plural, which is true. There are a few exceptions, like the Miami Heat in basketball, and quite a lot of exceptions in American soccer, like the Revolution, and then the two Sox teams in baseball which many of us find rather difficult — Manny Ramirez is a Dodger now, but he used to be a… a Red Sock. A Red Sox. A Red Sox player.
    Still, the teams are often denoted by their cities (or less frequently other regions), and in such usage Americans will virtually never use plural verbs (Boston is winning by ten, cf. The Celtics trail by ten), where Brits often do (Cheltenham are behind by a goal).

  11. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

    There is a fairly considerable literature on "British collective agreement" and related phenomena. Most especially, there is:

    Language – Volume 82, Number 1, March 2006, pp. 64-113

    NUMBER AGREEMENT IN BRITISH AND AMERICAN ENGLISH: DISAGREEING TO AGREE COLLECTIVELY KATHRYN BOCK ANNE CUTLER KATHLEEN M. EBERHARD University of Illinois at Max Planck Institute for University of Notre Dame Urbana-Champaign Psycholinguistics SALLY BUTTERFIELD J. COOPER CUTTING KARIN R. HUMPHREYS MRC Cognition and Illinois State University McMaster University Brain Sciences Unit

    from the abstract:

    British and American speakers exhibit different verb number agreement patterns when sentence subjects have collective head nouns. From linguistic and psycholinguistic accounts of how agreement is implemented, three alternative hypotheses can be derived to explain these differences. The hypotheses involve variations in the representation of notional number, disparities in how notional and grammatical number are used, and inequalities in the grammatical number specifications of collective nouns. We carried out a series of corpus analyses, production experiments, and norming studies to test these hypotheses. The results converge to suggest that British and American speakers are equally sensitive to variations in notional number and implement subjectverb agreement in much the same way, but are likely to differ in the lexical specifications of number for collectives.

  12. Garbanzo said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 1:01 pm

    @David Eddyshaw: My own American Sprachgefuhl (repeating your caveat) tells me that level of formality has nothing to bear. I can imagine no situation, however informal, in which I would use plural agreement with "committee" or other collective noun. The only way to emphasize that the individuals of the collective are acting independently is to use a structure like, "The members of the committee are…"

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  14. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

    A well-known (NW) US example, which flashed across my screen just too late for me to submit it during my last computer session:

         "Windows is shutting down …"

    As a matter of fact, various windows _were_ shutting down at the same time.

  15. recycler said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

    "Committee" might not be the best example. In U.S. English until relatively recently (the late 19th century perhaps) it seems to have meant "one or more two whom something was committed," similar to "trustee." Meeting minutes of the 19th century are full of references to projects being referred to a committee of Mr. Smith, or to Mr. Smith "as a committee," or similar. It still has this singular meaning in legal English in the U.S. in some situations, such as when it refers to a representative appointed to look out for the interests of someone behind bars (where the emphasis is on the last syllable).

    The best examples I have seen are in the automobile and music presses. "Ford are" introducing a new car; "Oasis are" falling apart.

  16. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

    Nigel Greenwood reports "Windows is shutting down …"

    This is, of course, the only acceptable agreement pattern if "Windows" refers to an operating system. The citation of it here is a little joke — cute, but not at all relevant to the topic of agreement with collectives.

    There are various types of nouns that are plural in form but singular in both semantics and morphosyntax. (A different class is illustrated by "Chuckles" as the name of a clown and "Bubbles" as a nickname for Beverly Sills and a huge number of other proper names.) Reasonable-sized reference grammars of English enumerate these types.

  17. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

    @Nigel Greenwood:

    The name of the well known b0rked operating system is surely singular despite its form, rather than collective, although I can think of some non-count nouns to apply to it.

    BTW, up until this moment I believed that no American was called Nigel (or Derek). Just goes to show how important it is to look at the actual evidence …

  18. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    James: "as a matter of fact you won't find plural verbs with collective nouns even in informal usage in the US."

    This is just false. Some collective nouns won't work with plural verbs in American English, but some are fine (depending on the context), "family" and "staff", for instance. It's not hard to google up examples (along the lines of "my family were all active Jehovah’s Witnesses", from an Oregonian), and reference grammars regularly mention these two-way collectives.

  19. Mark Liberman said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

    Arnold: Some collective nouns won't work with plural verbs in American English, but some are fine (depending on the context), "family" and "staff", for instance.

    We've discussed examples now and then over the years, e.g. "Collective nouns with singular verbs and plural pronouns", 2/5/2005 (where despite the post's title, some American examples of collective nouns with plural verbs are also cited).

  20. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

    As a sort of minimal pair in British usage, may I say that as a morning newspaper headline

    "England Collapse"

    is less likely to cause one to drop the toast than

    "England Collapses"

  21. Dave R. said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

    In my experience, whether Brits treat collective nouns as singular or plural largely depend on whether they are currently considering said entity as one whole or a collection of parts.

    My favourite team is Liverpool FC.
    The team were great last night.

    The committee has decided to order redundancies.
    The committee have decided to order burgers.

    I'd expect to see "committee has" more often than "committee have" as committees are more commonly recorded as having made (as a whole) this or that decision, rather than as being a bunch of barstewards.

  22. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

    Mark writes: "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."

    This is entirely backwards. Hansard clearly prefers "committee was" to "committee were", by a huge margin.

  23. Killer said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

    The difference in agreement on collective names applies to rock bands and record labels as well, in my experience. (I'm an American but spent a lot of time in Britain in the '80s.)

    "U2 is on tour."
    "EMI has signed the Sex Pistols."

    "U2 are on tour."
    "EMI have signed the Sex Pistols."

    For a band with a plural name, both would say:
    "The Sex Pistols are on tour."

    But for a record company with a plural name, the difference still applies:
    "Virgin Records is announcing…" (US)
    "Virgin Records are announcing…" (UK)

  24. Rubrick said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 6:26 pm

    I was going to bring up much the same point as Killer. The singular/plural tension arises quite a lot with band names. As an American speaker, I find both "U2 are" and "U2 is" to be reasonable, with each preferred in different contexts. I'd say "U2 is still going strong after all these years", but "U2 are still together after all these years".

    "The Beatles is the most popular band of all time" sounds ridiculous, but "The most popular band of all time is the Beatles" is just fine.

    Interestingly, "The Who is enjoying a comeback" sounds slightly wrong to my ear; I'd prefer "The Who are". It's unclear why I'd have any instincts at all regarding such a forcibly unnatural construction (determiner + interrogative pronoun(?) functioning as a NP).

  25. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

    @ David Eddyshaw:

    up until this moment I believed that no American was called Nigel (or Derek). Just goes to show how important it is to look at the actual evidence …

    Not sure what to make of this gnomic statement. Have I just received the Churchill treatment? Steady, The Buffs!

  26. Bob Ladd said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

    The one collective noun nobody has mentioned so far that (I think) universally takes a plural verb in English is police. Native speakers of other European languages say things in English like "The police is coming", but I'd be surprised to find any native speaker of either American or British (or Australian, or wherever) English who could say that without feeling that something was seriously amiss.

    I also agree with several commenters who note the British sport(s)-related usage (Arsenal have scored again, etc. etc.), which I'd be very surprised to find in American English (and which still brings me up short sometimes, even after 25 years in Britain).
    Otherwise I think Mark is right that a lot of this is a case of the frequency illusion.

  27. Alan Gunn said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

    Recycler said, ""Committee" might not be the best example. In U.S. English until relatively recently (the late 19th century perhaps) it seems to have meant "one or more two whom something was committed," similar to "trustee.""

    It can still mean that, at least to lawyers, but we pronounce it differently when it does. When it's a person (someone responsible for a lunatic, for instance), the emphasis is on the last syllable, so it sounds a lot like "guarantee."

  28. Daniel Ezra said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

    following recycler,
    online etymology dictionary has:

    1621, revival of Anglo-Fr. commité, pp. of commettre "to commit," from L. committere (see commit). Orig. "person to whom something is committed" (1495), broadened 17c. to mean a body of such people.

    it's worth looking at more words and seeing how they pattern in british english, but if "committee" is in some sense reflecting its etymological history as a singular, this would be very interesting. labov and others have shown (e.g. with the in(g) alternation) how historical tendencies like that can be passed down over centuries in very subtle patterns of variation.

  29. Bryn LaFollette said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 7:14 pm


    The best examples I have seen are in the automobile and music presses. "Ford are" introducing a new car; "Oasis are" falling apart.

    Are these supposed to be examples of American English usage in print? As an American English speaker, I find these to be totally ungrammatical and would be really surprised to see such statements printed in American publications, or at least would be given serious pause. Only "Ford is introducing a new car," or "Oasis is falling apart," sound right to my ear. Perhaps I am missing something, or perhaps this was simply supposed to give the correct unambiguous example of singular agree in American English vs. plural in British English. While there are the examples of collectives agreeing with plurals like those given by Mark and Arnold above, these two clearly do not fall into that group to my ear.

  30. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 8:56 pm

    @Nigel Greenwood:

    I didn't mean to be gnomic, honest, guv …

    It occurs to me that I may have leapt to conclusions with regard to your supposed Americanness, as (reading with a bit more care) it's Microsoft's Americanity you're talking about, not your own.

    It's just that I've always thought the name Nigel to be quintessentially British – English even. This may well just prove the narrowness of my knowledge of the world. I would be very pleased to find I was wrong (yes, really).

    Would these "Buffs" of whom you speak be taking singular or plural agreement?

  31. mollymooly said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

    @Bryn: I'm fairly sure recycler intended '"Ford are" introducing a new car; "Oasis are" falling apart.' as examples of British usage, so your reaction is exactly what is expected from an American.

    @Dave R: I too could never replace is with are in "My favourite team is Liverpool FC"; however, I might well do so in "Liverpool is my favourite team." I'm not sure how this difference relates to the unified-whole vs collection-of-parts principle.

    @Mark Liberman: while some commenters have pointed to a possible US-specific meaning of committee skewing with the statistics, I would also point to the significant difference in meaning of government between the two countries.

  32. dr pepper said,

    December 3, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

    True. In the UK, "government" is the termporary arrangement of who specifically in charge, whereas in the US we call that an "administation" and use "government" to mean the permanent organization of authority and offices that successive people occupy. The latter is called the "state" in Britain.

    But i don't see how that affects the number syntax.

  33. Sarosh K said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 1:45 am

    I have thought about this topic before and I'm glad to see it covered. I use the singular mostly however I use plural in some cases as well. I think my operating rule can be summarized in:

    A plural is more appropriate if the collective is composed of a small number of mostly known or knowable individuals that can all be thought of at the same time, whereas a singular is more appropriate if the collective is composed of a large body of individuals that cannot be recalled all at once.

    Does it make sense?

  34. Ben K said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 3:22 am

    I think looking at it as a blanket statement is wrong. It seems more to depend on the context of the sentence–whether the entity as a whole is performing some action or the individual members are performing some action in parallel.
    An illuminating example, from Elvis Costello's song "Oliver's Army":

    Oliver's army is here to stay
    Oliver's army are on their way

  35. Paul said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 4:47 am

    Football teams do seem to provide an interesting case. I'm a Brit and "My favourite team is Liverpool" seems fine to me, where "My favourite team are Liverpool" sounds a bit odd. "Liverpool is my favourite team" is fine but so is "Liverpool are my favourite team". "Liverpool have just scored a goal" is fine but "Liverpool has scored a goal" is just bizarre and weird and, had I not heard Americans say this sort of thing, I would have thought it had come from a non-native speaker.

    Actually I can get round the issue by admitting that "I'm a Sunderland supporter". I find it keeps one humble.

  36. what is the definition of news media | Digg hot tags said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 5:29 am

    […] Vote Where are all those British collective plurals? […]

  37. Stephen said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 5:34 am

    Just to add my own aesthetic judgment as a BrE native, Recycler's examples:
    1. Ford are introducing a new car.
    2. Oasis are falling apart.
    both sound perfectly natural to me. The alternatives with "is" sound just about acceptable, but more so for Ford. Using the singular form for a small group of people, like Oasis, sounds strangely impersonal to me.

    In response to Dave R's example, there are a handful of Google hits for {"my favourite team are Liverpool"} (which seems marginally unacceptable to me). They're apparently all genuine, and most seem to be (young) native speakers, so there are obviously seem people for whom it's fine.

  38. Etl World News | BRITISH COLLECTIVE PLURALS. said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 6:32 am

    […] [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 […]

  39. local current events | Digg hot tags said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 6:42 am

    […] Vote Where are all those British collective plurals? […]

  40. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 8:00 am

    @ David Eddyshaw:

    I confirm that I am British — nay, English.

    Heard on the BBC radio Today programme this morning, in a discussion about leave in the Australian navy: How big is your Navy, & how many of it are on holiday?. Of course this wasn't scripted, & is therefore perhaps more informative from a linguistic point of view.

  41. Thomas said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 8:18 am

    From the multitude of examples given in the article and comments, it seems the situation in British English is a little (or a lot) more nuanced and complex than Geoff Pullum's 'Brits strongly prefer the collective plural' generalisation. I remember sitting in his inaugural syntax course at Edinburgh last year and being told that British people always say e.g. he fell out of the window and never the wholly American he fell out the window. That didn't quite match up with my intuitions, and nor does his 'judgement call' on this.

  42. Ian Preston said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 9:11 am

    @Peter Howard

    Does a singular aticle force a singular verb? What if you're British, want to add an indefinite article and can't not see the collective as a group of individuals? Can you say something like:

    "A vibrant media, although under threat from many sides, also exist."

    That's from the The Observer. Singular article, plural verb. I'm British and feel the pull of plural verb forms but admit this strains my feeling of grammaticality. Then I read it again and it sounds right.

    Here are some made-up examples:

    A vibrant intelligentsia support a healthy democracy.
    A supine Cabinet are letting the PM ride roughshod over civil liberties.
    An off-form Oasis were the disappointing centrepiece of the festival.
    A committee have been appointed to look into the question.
    An adaptable defence provide the foundation for any good team.

    I want to be able to say these things but half-feel like I'm crossing some forbidden grammatical line if I do so. On the other hand I don't feel I can make the verb singular in all of them (especially not the Oasis one) and even where I can I feel like I'm then saying something that means something slightly different.

  43. Peter Howard said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 9:54 am

    @ Ian Preston

    "Does a singular aticle force a singular verb?" I don't know; that part of my comment was more or less conjecture about why I found the mixture of singular and plural ungrammatical. The Observer example just sounds wrong to me, though I agree with you that your Oasis example wouldn't work with a singular verb. The other examples exhibit a spectrum of dodginess to my ear. I'm saying no more than if I found myself writing one of those sentences, I'd probably try to rewrite it a different way.

  44. James said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 10:10 am


    That's right, I'd forgotten about 'family', and I should have remembered 'staff' especially since I'd made a mental note of 'faculty', which I think is sometimes used not as a collective noun at all but as a plural that has no singular (as in, "How many faculty do we expect to attend?").

    Hm, I see that you are happy to submit comments, Arnold, even though you do not allow them on your own posts.

  45. Andrew said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 10:37 am

    Dr Pepper: I think that's over-simple. It is true that in the UK we don't normally use 'government' in the American sense, covering executive, legislative and judicial branches. But while we sometimes use it specifically for those currently in power – equivalent to US 'administration' – we also use it for the executive branch more generally, including civil servants and the like. If I say that I have received a government grant for a project, I'm not implying that it was approved by Gordon Brown or one of his associates.

    As to its relevance to the present issue: I think if people in the UK used 'government' in the US sense, they would be more likely to say 'the government is'. But if people in the US used it in the UK sense, then, judging by what they do with other terms, they still wouldn't say 'the government are'.

  46. Andrew said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 10:52 am

    Ian Preston: I think your first and last examples are rather different from the others, because with them you aren't referring to a particular intelligentsia or a particular defence; you mean that having a vibrant intelligentsia or an adaptable defence has the effect in question. In these cases I would feel that singular is required. With the second and third I think plural is possible. I wouldn't have thought it was with 'A committee have been appointed', but I don't think that's the effect of the article – it would sound just as odd to me with 'The committee'.

  47. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 10:54 am

    @Nigel Greenwood:

    In these trying times of crisis and universal brouhaha I am relieved that at least one of my certainties still stands.


    December 4, 2008 @ 10:55 am

    […] [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 […]

  49. Where are all those British collective plurals? « ESOL World News said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 11:06 am

    […] Where are all those British collective plurals? LANGUAGE LOG–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": full story […]

  50. Ian Preston said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    Peter, Andrew: If I hear: "A vibrant intelligentsia supports …" then I think of the intelligentsia collectively as a healthy organ in a well-functioning polity; if I hear "A vibrant intelligentsia support …" then I think of the individual intellectuals each pulling their weight by contributing to debate on the issues facing the nation. I still want to say it in a way that attaches the vibrancy to them collectively though.

    If I hear: "A committee has been appointed …" then I think of the committee sitting together or in the abstract; if I hear: "A committee have been appointed …" then I think of the individual members receiving their letters of appointment separately.

    I don't want to downplay the dodginess in the less convincing examples though; I feel it myself even as I can imagine myself saying them.

  51. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 1:12 pm

    An email I received this morning from PrestoClassical.uk:

    Dear Customer,
    I'm sorry to report that there will be a delay in despatching the following
    Order No Order date Description (label, cat, title)
    196989 10-Nov-08 Naive E8923 Haydn – String Quartets Volume 1

    This is caused by the label's UK distributor (Pinnacle Entertainment) going
    into administration yesterday (December 3rd). This in no way reflects upon
    the label, and on the positive side the label have already signed a deal
    with a new distributor

  52. Craig said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    I use the British collective "we" all the time. Some people merely look at me strangely. Some people don't like it. Some don't like it more than others. As a devoted Anglophile, I shall continue to use it every day.

  53. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

    To Nigel and David, re "British" first names:

    Derek Jeter is pretty American.

  54. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

    After rapid consultation of Google (not much interest in Baseball over here) I agree that Derek Jeter is undeniably American.

    Bet you haven't got any Major League Baseball players called Nigel though.
    (But then, neither have we …)

  55. Gak Flower said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 4:22 pm


  56. Dee Lawrence said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

    There's Nigel Williams, the ice hockey player, born in Illinois.

  57. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

    My beautiful theory has been killed by an ugly fact.
    In the true Huxley mode, I rejoice in my advance in scientific knowledge.

  58. Karen said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

    @Bob Ladd: "The one collective noun nobody has mentioned so far that (I think) universally takes a plural verb in English is police. Native speakers of other European languages say things in English like "The police is coming", but I'd be surprised to find any native speaker of either American or British (or Australian, or wherever) English who could say that without feeling that something was seriously amiss."

    Around here (Baltimore) "The police is coming" would be fine, as long as (a) you pronounced it POH-leese, not puh-LEESE, and (b) you meant one police officer.

  59. Mark Liberman said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

    @Bob, Karen: I'm not so sure that police is a collective noun — it shows some other signs of being (at least sometimes) plural, as in these web examples:

    Several hundred police were involved in the clash.
    More than a dozen police were injured by flying stones.
    Some twenty police were struggling to keep the swarm of onlookers at bay.

    No one on either side of the Atlantic would say "several hundred team" or "more than a dozen committee" or "some twenty government".

  60. blahedo said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

    @Thomas "…and being told that British people always say e.g. he fell out of the window and never the wholly American he fell out the window."

    Rather, I'd say that the Americans use both, with a semantic distinction: the former indicates that someone was "in" the window in the first place (e.g. sitting on the windowsill), and could indicate either an inward fall (onto the floor) or an outward fall (onto the sidewalk). In contrast, I'd use "out the window" if the window were merely a portal through which the fall occurred, and only if the fall were outwards relative to the room or building.

    This is not entirely off-topic: it strikes me that this as well as British collectives are victims of another Illusion, a cousin to the Local Color Illusion and the Frequency Illusion (is there a catalogue of these somewhere?), that when another dialect has an alternation that you don't, you disproportionately notice the form you don't share, and so fall into the trap of assuming that the other dialect always (or more frequently) uses the other form. This would apply whether the alternation were free or principled, because if both forms aren't present in your dialect, any principle to the alternation would be one that you don't natively have….

  61. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

    blahedo: "… it strikes me that this as well as British collectives are victims of another Illusion, a cousin to the Local Color Illusion and the Frequency Illusion (is there a catalogue of these somewhere?), that when another dialect has an alternation that you don't, you disproportionately notice the form you don't share, and so fall into the trap of assuming that the other dialect always (or more frequently) uses the other form. This would apply whether the alternation were free or principled, because if both forms aren't present in your dialect, any principle to the alternation would be one that you don't natively have…."

    this is a variant of the Out-Group Illusion:
    AZ, 8/17/05: More illusions:
    ML, 3/22/06: The Affect: Sociolinguistic speculation at the NYO:

    but it's more specific, and might deserve a label of its own.

  62. mollymooly said,

    December 4, 2008 @ 8:21 pm

    Is it a linguistic universal for sports fans to refer to their favourite team in the first person plural, as in "we're number one and we're going to beat you again this year"?

  63. Mark Etherton said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 6:33 am

    The relative prevalence in Hansard of "the committee was" and "the committee were" may reflect the Hansard editors' style guide, rather than what MPs actually said in the Chamber. Certainly the style guide for Commons Clerks drafting reports for committees says: "Nouns representing a collective identity should always take singular verbs (ie the Committee considers; the Government intends; the Committee proposes). But if the noun stands for the constituents of the entity, use the plural (for example, the Government is united; but the Government were divided)."

    When I started work in the Foreign Office some twenty-five years ago, the guidance was that the British government (Her Majesty's Government or more usually HMG) was always singular, but other countries' governments took the plural (perhaps because they were innately fissiparous, being composed of foreigners).

  64. Stephen Jones said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 6:41 am

    The BNC has 939 examples of the singular verb to 67 for the plural with 'committee'.

    With 'team' 949 to 139.

  65. Stephen Jones said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 6:52 am

    so far that (I think) universally takes a plural verb in English is police.

    A quick decko at the BNC provides quite a few cases of 'police' with a singular verb.

  66. Andrew said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    blahedo:'out the window' is certainly possible in British English, but I think it is always informal (and perhaps also regional) – whereas I take it that in US English it can be used in perfectly formal contexts.

    One striking example of the illusion you mention, or a related one, is the widespread belief that the British always use '-ise' when Americans use '-ize'. The truth is that while Americans always use '-ize' (I think – but perhaps someone will now point out that this is an illusion), both '-ise' and '-ize' are historically acceptable in the UK, and '-ize' was preferred by the Oxford Dictionaries and by The Times. Now, however, it is beating a retreat because, when it is used, people complain about the nasty Americanism.

  67. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

    Yes, Canadians use "-ize" (even though we use "-our" in words like "colour" and "flavour"), and Canadian dictionaries justify this by pointing out that "-ize" is older and more true to the Greek origins, whereas "-ise" is due to later French influence.

    (And yes, I realize that resorting to this sort of evidence to "prove" that -ize is the "right" ending to use is ultimately a bit silly. But I think it is interesting that "-ize" is not a recent American bastardization.)

  68. Sarosh K said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

    @ MollyMooly

    Is it a linguistic universal for sports fans to refer to their favourite team in the first person plural, as in "we're number one and we're going to beat you again this year"?

    That's a synecdoche. I don't know if it's universal but it exists it many languages and cultures.

  69. John VanLooy said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 1:26 am

    When I lived in England the parks in our area were marked with signs that read, "The Public are requested to stay off the grass." The authorities seemed fairly confident of their usage: these were cast iron signs and there were a lot of them.

  70. Max Bane said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 1:30 am

    A useful tool for this kind of provenance-comparison research is Google Insight:

    It lets you compare the distribution of the volume of search queries across countries. So if you look at who's searching for phrases containing "government is" and compare that to who's searching for things containing "government are" there is an appreciable difference — commonwealth countries have much larger relative search volume for the latter (though in absolute volume, "government are" is less common than "government is"). Similarly for "family is" versus "family are", etc.

  71. Jordan Kay said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 2:19 am

    I think the notion that that British English uses a plural verb to agree with collective nouns significantly more often than American English to the point of it being a oft-cited usage difference between the two dialects is easier revealed when considering nouns other than "committee" and "government," whose usage as demonstrated above doesn't display this notion. Proper nouns referring to companies and band names, I've noticed, seem to be a much better demonstration and seem to confirm Geoff's statement.

    A particularly interesting example from BBC news I noticed today shows that this phenomenon is probably more general than this discussion is making it out to be and applies to more than just choice of verb number:

    "Grammy nominees Coldplay have been sued by rock guitarist Joe Satriani, who claims the band's song Viva La Vida uses one of his riffs."

    In my dialect of English, not only would I never use "Coldplay have" (pertaining to the discussion above), but I would never refer to the "Grammy nominees Coldplay" either. It's as if collective nouns such as these are actually conceived somewhat differently to speakers of British English and American English, with the groups actually being thought of as a reference to their members in British English, but as some sort of abstract entity not directly referencing individuals. Seeing this discrepancy extended beyond just subject-verb agreement to a restrictive appositive, having nothing to do with verbs, leads me to believe that British English uses a band name and other such collective nouns for an entirely different purpose than American English does.

    I'm starting to wonder which collective nouns are more likely than not to be used this way in British English, because clearly it's more prevalent with some than others.

  72. Jordan Kay said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 2:22 am

    (To clarify the above, that should read "not as some sort of abstract entity referencing individuals," as we seem to do in American English.)

  73. mollymooly said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 2:31 am

    @Sarosh K:
    I'd say metonymy rather than synecdoche.

    When discussing the team with a fellow-fan, I surmise one uses inclusive-we rather than exclusive-we if the language distinguishes these.

    Why does it work for sports teams but not, say, rock bands? I guess because one can only support one team (per sport), while multiple bands can share one's support.

  74. Bob Ladd said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 6:51 am

    @ Andrew: AmEng spelling has advertise and surprise (reprise, comprise, etc.), but otherwise I think you're right that "Americans always use -ize". And you certainly see both advertize and surprize, too.

  75. Andrew said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 8:56 am


    My guess is that both using "we" to refer to a sports team one supports and supporting a single team are due to the tribalism produced by competition. I suspect if teams were somehow not competing against each other.

    Does anyone else find pronouns change things? "British Gas are raising prices" and "British Gas is raising prices" seem about equivalent to me, but I greatly prefer "British Gas are raising their prices" to "British Gas is raising its prices".

  76. Merri said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 8:25 am

    This use of plural with collective nouns could well be due to higher consciousness of the collective function. English, like Britton, frequently uses collective nouns for things that usually come as a set (e.g. furniture), needing a specific form to mark the singular ; so that the English-speaking persons feel they should use plural as an acknowledgement of the sense of collective nouns. This is made easier by the fact that there is onnly one definite article for singular and plural (no Frenchperson would write "la France gagnent", because "la" is singular).
    As English internationalizes, persons who don't commonly use collective nouns in their respective languages see those grammatically singular forms, and use singular agreement for this reason.

  77. Aaron Davies said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 10:15 am

    @ian: possibly someone is dimly remembering the etymology of "media"?

  78. Megan Shank dot com » Blog Archive » Memories of Collective Plurals said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 2:33 am

    […] compared US Congressional Records with published transcripts of British parliamentary debates. He found : "…in British parliamentary material from the past year, committee seems to take […]

  79. Irene said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

    I never use a plural verb with a collective noun and I never encounter such usage, except in British media. I agree with Jordan Kay that Americans and British might conceptualize these nouns differently. I would say my family is from Philadelphia. If I wanted to emphasize that this applies to my entire family, I would say that every member of my family is from Phila. I would never say my “family are”.

    Legal principle supports the use of the singular when referring to a company because it is a single, legal entity. So, "General Motors is receiving bailout money" is understood to stand for "The legally incorporated entity doing business under the name of ‘General Motors’ is receiving bailout money."

    Verbs associated with band names simply take the number of the name: the Beatles are here; the Rolling Stones are here; Queen is here; Blind Faith is here. (Comments about my age are closed!)

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