Collective Nouns

I was intrigued by something New York Times soccer (football) writer Rory Smith mentioned the other day. Apparently there had been a discussion on his newsletter about the way British usage considers a team plural, but American usage has it singular:  “Chelsea are playing today” versus “New York is playing today.” (If only). I’ve looked at the issue a a few times on the blog, most recently here; you can see all the posts by typing the word “plural” into the search field at right.

But I haven’t covered why this difference exists, and Smith reported getting a message from a reader with an explanation:

I think the American use of the singular “is” as opposed to the plural “are” came about as a result of the Civil War. Prior to the war Americans talked and wrote about the United States using the plural — these United States “are.” After the war common usage changed to the United States “is.” Gradually that usage came to be applied to other groups such as sports teams.

I found myself reacting skeptically, and sure enough, when I ran it by linguist Lynne Murphy, she was dubious about both of the reader’s claims. First, she said, “The relevance of the Civil War to the singularisation of the US is something that’s been said and debunked in various places (or at least, claimed to be too simplistic). Language Log has done some: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1794 and there’s this: https://t.co/teBf5Xo4t6.”

I subsequently found, in addition, an article by Ben Zimmer on the Visual Thesaurus website that pinpoints where Smith’s reader probably got his take. In Ken Burns’s wildly popular 1990 documentary about the Civil War, historian Shelby Foote says:

Before the war, it was said “the United States are.” Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always “the United States is,” as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an “is.”

Foote didn’t make the idea up; Zimmer quotes several others who espoused it starting in the 1890s. But none of them had any hard evidence. It turns out the War did not in fact mark an abrupt change. One scholar analyzed Supreme Court decisions and found, “justices continued to use the plural form through the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the plural usage was the predominant usage in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Only in the beginning of the twentieth century did the singular usage achieve preeminence and the plural usage disappear almost entirely.”

Google Books Ngram Viewer similarly finds that in U.S. books, “The United States are” (red line) prevailed until about 1880, after which “The United States is” (blue line) commenced a rapid ascent.

Screen Shot 2020-04-08 at 3.18.16 PM

Smith’s reader’s other claim is that singular verbs for sports teams and other groups followed the example of “the United States.” Lynne Murphy didn’t buy that, either, calling it “fanciful/misguided.” There’s a section on this (complicated) topic in her book The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English, in which she cites research to the effect that singular use for collective nouns (“the government,” “the army,” “Parliament,” “Congress,” “New York,” “Chelsea”) has been on the rise worldwide since the 18th century. Americans have been the trailblazers, in other words, and the British the laggards.

One interesting line of research suggests that, in the 20th century, the British reversed course and started doing the plural-verb-for-collective noun bit more, possibly to set themselves apart from the Yanks. (A similar thing happened in Britain with the end of words like “realize/realise” and “organize/organise.” The “ize” form was more popular until the late 19th century, when the very-much-non-American “ise” started to surge.)

An example comes from a database containing Hansard, the proceedings of the house of Parliament. Here’s a chart showing the declining frequency of the phrase “the government is”* since 1910. (The bottom number — 2.58 in 1910, 0.70 in 1990 — is key, indicating how often the phrase occurs per million words.)

Screen Shot 2020-04-08 at 4.07.55 PM

And here’s the chart for “the government are”:

Screen Shot 2020-04-08 at 4.08.22 PM

All of which leads me to suggest that Rory Smith’s readers take up a new topic: why do Britain have the odd habit of using plural verbs for collective nouns?

*Note. Pure searches for “the government is” and “the government are” would lead to false positives, for example, sentences like “Members of the government are working hard.” To avoid these, I searched for instances where the phrase followed a colon and thus began a clause.

25 responses to “Collective Nouns

  1. Interesting! The next time I have some good-natured jostling about the American “bastardiZation” of the English language I will point them here!

  2. It is, or ought to be, a matter of what is being conveyed: a single unit containing several parts or a single unit whose several parts make it a complete unit. The team is exceptional, but the team are playing very well. The family is setting the worst standards, but the family are a lot of hooligans.
    The second example then goes neatly from a plural to a singular plural.

    • David Ballard

      I really like that, and confess I’ve never heard of it. I don’t know if I’d be mentally organiZed enough to remember to do it. (BTW, I’m American but my spelling software is, mysteriously, British, so I get the red error word all the time.)

  3. In her most recent Queen’s Speech at last year’s State Opening of Parliament, the Queen said, “My Government has”. In her first ever State Opening of Parliament in 1952, she said, “My Government have”. Perhaps the Queen has been Americanized too.

  4. Both forms are acceptable in British English and are dependent on context; one should remain consistent throughout the document. The singular is used when referring to a group as a single entity, for example the military drill command, “The Regiment is to move to the right in threes…” However, in the example of, “The Regiment are pleased to have deployed to…” plural form is used as the comment implies that “the members of the Regiment are pleased…”

  5. David Ballard

    I think the use of a plural verb after a collective noun is growing in the US, and not just in soccer broadcasting, where it is now standard practice in the same way that the use of British words like pitch and side and sent off are used instead of the perfectly acceptable American sports equivalents. That said, I can’t provide any concrete recent examples.

    However, I have a relevant semi-digression, which may be my imagination, but I don’t think so. I believe that it is increasingly common to hear educated American people say things like this, which I heard on NPR today: “…the number of infections and deaths are…”

    I can’t recall reading it, but I hear it all the time now. At least three times a day, it seems, listening to the radio, I hear the formula. “…the stock of ventilators and masks are…” That kind of thing. I know people have done that forever, but they’ve also been taught that it’s wrong, so maybe that’s changing and it’s now permissable. Has anyone else noticed this, in Britain or the US?

    • When I went to school (in the UK) in the 70’s, I was taught that collective nouns were singular, unless it’s referring to the constituents as individuals. For example, “the regiment was deployed”. However, in recent years, I’ve seen “the regiment were deployed”, which sounds wrong to me. Also, phrases like “the stock of masks are low” is just plain wrong, regardless of nationality!

  6. To diverge a little – you mention “the government is” and “the government are”. But what about the use of “government” without the definite article? I wonder if that is an old Britishism? I used to live in a very small British island in the West Indies, where politicians and officials used to, and still do, just refer to “Government” rather than “the Government” especially when speaking, rather than in writing (but there are one or two written examples to be found at http://www.gov.ms). I suspect this is a relic of an archaic British usage (not the only one that survives in various former colonies), but would be interested in comments on this

    • Nick L. Tipper

      I began to notice the word ‘governance’ about 20 years ago and quickly, it seemed to be on every politician’s lips. I worked out that they were using it to distinguish ‘government’ the noun from ‘government’ the verb, where one word had previously served us well, its meaning having been determined by context.

      • Paul Dormer

        After leaving office, Harold Wilson wrote a book called The Governance of Britain. I remember reviews at the time saying “governance” was a slightly archaic word, but I wonder if that started its return to use.

  7. Funny … I’ve noticed this (didn’t know it had a title) when it comes to describing bands – in particular on Wikipedia. It seems the Wiki style is to use the singular: (for example) “Led Zeppelin was a …”. However, to my British ears that’s just wrong, and it should be “Led Zeppelin were a …”.

    By the same token, of someone asked me to describe a football team (say Chelsea) I’d say “Chelsea are an English football team” and most assuredly NOT “Chelsea is an English football team.”

    For no apparent reason it reminds me of the “named for”/”named after” constructs that separate US and UK English …

  8. The Latin phrase E pluribus unum was proposed as a motto for the United States in 1776. While it did not become the official motto of the United States until 1956, it has been on the Great Seal of the United States since 1782, and has appeared on coins minted by the Treasury since the 1790s.

    • Sadly, I believe the motto that became official in 1956 was “In God We Trust”. E Pluribus Unum is, of course, infinitely better. If the US doesn’t want it, can I propose we nick it?

  9. An example of collective nouns being conjugated with plural verbs in American usage is in team sports, where team names that are singular (e.g. Minnesota Wild, Miami Heat, Alabama Crimson Tide, Sioux Falls Stampede) are always treated as plural, as in ‘The Minnesota Wild are leading Montreal 4-2’.

    The practice is carried on even where the word in question, when used as a noun, most often refers to a concrete object that is pluralized conventionally. This happens with the Stanford Cardinal, and Syracuse Orange, among others. “The Stanford Cardinal are running away with the PAC-10 championship”, or, most strangely, “The Stanford Cardinal are leading the Louisville Cardinals 66-59 with two minutes to go in the game.”

  10. I have just this week been thinking about a related issue. We are binge watching British detective shows and have recently been going through George Gently. People frequently refer to themselves in the plural first person pronoun. Someone will say “why are you doing that to us”? meaning “to me”. Any thoughts on this?

    • I think of it as an old-fashioned usage in both countries, interesting that it should be common on that show. One American example is James Taylor’s “The Secret of Life,” where he sings, “Give us a smile.”

      • John Bewdley

        The series is set in the North East of England in the 1960s, although the original stories are set in Norfolk. I presume that the usage is to suggest a lower class character.

      • I don’t know about lower class. After all, the Queen is known to use the first person plural. It’s known as the “royal we”. And not just the current queen. Famously, Queen Victoria is supposed to have said, “We are not amused.”

      • John Bewdley

        The “royal we” is a different thing altogether. It indicates that the sovereign is talking about herself personally and as monarch simultaneously.

      • This is/was very common in Northern England. It’s not used in the south.

      • For some reason, the phrase “Give us a kiss” pops into my head, possibly uttered by a creepy villain in a movie.

        I find there’s a Pulp song, “Something Changed,” with the lines:

        Why did I write this song on that one day?
        Why did you touch my hand and softly say:
        “Stop asking questions that don’t matter anyway.
        Just give us a kiss to celebrate here today.”

      • Nick L. Tipper

        Give us a kiss.
        Lend us a quid.
        Do us a favour.
        Buy us a pint.
        Sentences of this form – replacing ‘me’ with ‘us’ where it follows a verb are, I think, in popular usage throughout the UK.
        Wider replacement of ‘me’ with ‘us’, as in:
        Why are you doing that to us? (cited by Karen R Rosenberg, above) is something I can only recall hearing people from the North East saying. The Inspector George Gently series is set in Durham so that fits.

      • I notice that all four of Nick’s examples are imperatives . That is the only context in which I can remember hearing “us” for “me”. And I think the “us” is best as the indirect object. (“Give us a kiss!” is fine; “Kiss us!” sounds very unnatural to me.)

        I heard “Give us it!” many times in my South Wales childhood in the ’50s and ’60s, but I haven’t heard it since. I don’t know whether that’s because of linguistic change, or because I moved to southern England, or just because I’m no longer a child squabbling with other children.

      • I’ve had a chat to my wife about this, and we both find the construction quite natural, but only in very specific situations. Its use in those situations doesn’t seem to be restricted to the North of England (as I’ve never lived there and she left Lincolnshire for South Wales as a young girl), and I’m not sure it is particularly associated with lower class characters, as John suggests.

        The only examples we could think of that seem natural to us are imperatives like those in Nick’s list, with the “us” replacing indirect object “me”. My wife’s immediate example was “Give us a job”. She also remarked that “give us a kiss” was affectionate and familiar, while “give me a kiss” sounds too much like a command to be used naturally between conventional lovers. (BDSM, presumably, is different.)

        So I think that the distinction, at least between adults, is a matter of register. The “me” form feels like an instruction or demand, while the “us” form is a request, verging on a supplication. In all Nick’s examples, the speaker is making clear that they are not in a position to demand what they are asking for. “Give me a job” would be counterproductively rude and peremptory if directed to a potential employer, unless softened with a “can you” and a “please” at the very least. “Give us a job” needs less softening, as the “us” already makes it a request rather than a demand. I think Ben’s creepy villain would be very unlikely to use the “us” form.

        “Give” is the commonest verb used in the construction, and when spoken, “give us” is frequently shortened to “gis”, though I don’t think that that is ever written. “Give us a”, however, is sometimes shortened in informal writing to “gizza” – though, to my ear, the z’s should be s’s. “Gizza job” was the leitmotif of Alan Bleasdale’s TV series “The Boys from the Blackstuff”, about the troubles of unemployed working-class men in early 1980s Liverpool. (Perhaps the Scouse accents of Bleasdale’s actors influenced the “z” spelling.) The phrase became attached to the generation whose working lives were badly disrupted by the recession at that turn of decade.

        The register explanation of the distinction doesn’t seem to apply to children, as my earlier comment showed. Perhaps the “us” form gains its unassuming character among adults by being subconsciously child-like. But I’m completely flummoxed as to how the “us” form came about in the first place. I wondered whether there could be a link with the thou-you merger, but it’s first person not second, and the replacement seems to be the wrong way around. So I am out of ideas.

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