Company – singular or plural?

A recent piece of work that landed on my desk featured extensive discussions of companies and their activities. This caused me to pause to think about a common language question – should companies be treated as singular or plural? As is often the case with many of the great grammar conundrums – it depends.


One train of thought is that this is another typical US v. UK debate. To some extent that is true. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, notes that collective nouns, including companies, are treated as ‘singular in American English, even when they are plural in form … In British English, however, singular nouns that refer to individuals who work independently typically take plural verbs’. The New Oxford Style Manual would concur, listing ‘variability in predication of group nouns’ in its chapter on US and British English. Hence, you are much more likely to read in the York Press that ‘York City FC are faltering in their bid for promotion’, while the New York Times will tell you that ‘New York City FC is hotly tipped to make the playoffs this season’.


Oxford note (or should that be notes!?) that ‘a plural verb is used in British where individuality or corporateness are being emphasised’. This hints at another thing to consider in this discussion, another truism of many grammar discussions – context is key. The Guardian and Observer Style Guide state that ‘Nouns such as committee, family, government, jury, squad and team take a singular verb or pronoun when thought of as a single unit, but a plural verb or pronoun when thought of as a collection of individuals’. So, while you might say that ‘the company is one of the biggest in the UK’, thinking about it as a single entity, you may then note that ‘the company are very happy with their Q3 performance’ as you are thinking more of the feelings of the individuals who work there.


The important things, as always, are consistency and audience appropriateness. If you are writing or editing for the US market you will use more singular variants, while tending towards the plural for a British readership. But remember that context may dictate the most appropriate form; as The Economist Style Guide states: ‘Do not, in any event, slavishly give all singular collective nouns singular verbs’. That said, the author I recently worked with had mixed it up seemingly arbitrarily, sometimes within the same sentence (e.g. ‘the company were able to promote its pamphlet’). This, obviously, is to be avoided.



REFERENCES:

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edn, Chicago: University of Chicago (2017), section 5.15.

Guardian and Observer Style Guide, ‘collective nouns’ (2016), accessed online 28 January 2019 at www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-c.

New Hart’s Rules, part 1 of New Oxford Style Manual, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2016), section 21.6.

R.L.G., ‘Style Guide entry of the week: collective nouns’, The Economist (2010), accessed online 28 January 2019 at www.economist.com/johnson/2010/09/20/style-guide-entry-of-the-week-collective-nouns.

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