A subject that never goes away is whether organisations should be treated as singulars or plurals. That is, whether we should say:
Tesco is the UK’s largest retail company
Tesco are the UK’s largest retail company
In this example, it seems pretty straightforward. The first reads more naturally and makes more sense. There’s no awkward disagreement between “are” (plural) and “company” (singular). And ultimately, Tesco is a single entity. Yes, it’s a collection of people, but it’s also the buildings, the trucks, the website, the light bulbs and everything else that gives it value.
This simplicity has made it a concrete rule that companies, teams and other organisations are singular, as Jacob Rees-Mogg pointed out last week (and I tentatively agreed with).
When the singular rule starts to look shaky
As is so often the case with written English, the rules are often best bent. I usually find that wherever there’s debate in grammatical circles, it’s because there’s a jarring between a rule that someone has imposed and the way a language is actually spoken. Here are a few examples that prove the rule should be obeyed case-by-case.
The rule never looks more crow-barred in than when dealing with football and other sporting teams. Consider this sentence:
Manchester United was once champion of Europe, but now it languishes in fifth place in the league.
No natural speaker of English would be satisfied with this statement. Is it the grammar? No. Look at this:
Steve Davis was once world snooker champion, but now he languishes in 200th place.
When it’s a singular entity, there’s no doubt it’s grammatically correct. But didn’t we say organisations are singular too? Just like Tesco, Manchester United is a mixture of people (players and staff, and perhaps even fans), plus real estate (Old Trafford) and other physical and virtual assets. So why does it sound weird to be a singular? It’s probably because when we picture United in our minds, we see the players, the crowd and the management, not the listing on the Stock Exchange (look at the difference in language here, and how natural it looks).
It’s the same with national teams, too. “The United States has won the Women’s World Cup” sounds too dry for the circumstances, whereas “The United States has imposed trade tariffs on China” does not. What’s going on here? It’s probably down to the human factor. We’re thinking of the team sweating and bleeding to win the trophy, not some policy document.
Also, national team names are really just shorthand for something longer. When we shout, “Come on, England”, we’re really shouting “Come on, the England national football team”, not “Come on, the bit of land that juts out of the North Sea bordered by Scotland and Wales”. If I had my way, fans would be thrown out of the stadium for chanting anything less than the full title.
“England have done it! In the last minute of extra-time!”
John Motson at Italia ’90 after David Platt’s famous goal
Talking about your own company
Another situation where treating a company as a singular feels wrong is when you’re talking about your own business. How would you think about this fictional company if you visited its “About It” page and saw the following?
Ace carpentry was founded in 1972 by husband and wife Larry and Sally Ace. It has now grown to cover four towns and employs 44 people. It really prides itself on the quality of its work – no job is too big or small for it. Why not give it a call and talk to one of its sales team? You’ll be delighted with its “Ace” service!
It’s clearly wrong, but is the logical conclusion to always treating companies as singulars. And of course, no company, however large, ever has an “About it” page.
Do what comes naturally
The few examples here (and there are many more) illustrate why it’s unwise to apply a hard and fast “singular” rule on your company’s literature. There are times when your company will be best represented as a singular entity, and times when it won’t. If pressed to come up with a rule for a corporate style guide, I’d say it’s all down to the intent of the sentence. If you’re talking about the company itself, take a singular route. But if you’re referring to the actions of its people, use plurals.
If you’ve ever wondered why a lot of corporate literature starts with “At Company X, we …”, it’s usually to get around the singular rule. It takes the focus off the company as an object and onto its people, which is usually what they are actually referring to when they’re promoting themselves. As a reader, you’re immediately more empathetic towards the company. It’s no longer a faceless organisation; it’s a collection of people working to make your life better.
And that’s exactly what it wants you to think.
Image: Annie Spratt