Are England Plural?

Watching ESPN’s coverage of the England-Croatia European Cup football soccer match yesterday, I was struck by an on-screen graphic announcing, “If results hold, England advance.”  Jack Bell’s recent guest post on Not One-Off-Footballisms did not cover the grammatical Britishism of plural verbs for collective nouns, but to me it’s an even more significant development than announcers saying “boots” instead of “cleats” or “pitch” instead of “field.” After all, the announcers are Brits, but the graphic represents a corporate editorial decision by all-American ESPN.

Coincidentally, the National Basketball Association finals are currently being played between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat–apparently the first time in U.S. major sports history that a championship is being contested by two teams whose names are not plural. (There’s a fun fact for you!) The outstanding public radio show “On the Media” last week had a segment about the dilemma faced by copy editors (that’s what we call subeditors) writing headlines: do they go singular (American) or plural (British?).

“On the Media” host Bob Garfield had an exchange with Tom Scocca, the editor of the online sports magazine Deadspin, that shows the surprising passion this issue can provoke. (Note: The OED defines poncy as “Affected, pretentious, self-consciously refined or superior; overly fancy or elaborate; effeminate, homosexual.”)

SCOCCA:  In Britain, there’s a longstanding habit of treating collective nouns, or these kind of mass nouns, as plurals. So in British English you would say, “The team are doing well,” and, therefore, in British English they don’t really care what they call their sports teams. And so, you have people say “Arsenal are the superior side in this match.”

GARFIELD:  But the problem is, as you observed, if you use the British convention, you sound like a poncy–

SCOCCA:  Rock critic, yeah. That’s a longstanding problem in writing or talking about rock music, because so many bands have these names that are singular to describe this collective unit that’s the band. And, you know, there’s a lot of Anglophilia in rock writing, and so there are people who will say things like, “Pavement are the most important band since Wire.”

GARFIELD:  [LAUGHS] And how does that make you feel , when you run across – “Pavement are the greatest band since Wire?”

SCOCCA:  Despite the fact that I might agree with the sentiment, the skin crawls on the back of my neck.

GARFIELD:  And you basically want to find the critic and just  kind of slap him around, come on –

SCOCCA:  Yeah, give him a wedgie or something.

GARFIELD:  You’ve got some examples illustrating the issue.

SCOCCA:  Right. Sports Illustrated pretty consistently embraces the British usage, so their headline would be, “Heat Have Experienced Motivation to Win It All.”

GARFIELD:  Poncy.

SCOCCA:  Yeah, extremely. “Have another crumpet, Sports Illustrated.”

18 responses to “Are England Plural?

  1. As an American editor working in the UK, this (and all collective nouns being treated as plurals) is by far the most irritating thing about British English. I try to fight it, but I’m losing.

    • And it has long been one of my irritations about American English that collective nouns are treated as singular. “Man United is winning”? – gah! But instead of talking about irrational irritations, I would genuinely like to know the reasons for this difference. Is the US more individualistic? Are the Brits more inclined towards collectivism? Or is it the other way around?

  2. Re. last line of post…
    Shopping at Whole Foods’ 5%-to-charity day last month, I picked up some crumpets to try. Unexpectedly chewy and flavorless. Most are still in the fridge. Think I’ll stick to scones.

    • I hope you toasted them and smeared them with butter; they’re horrendous straight out the pack. Although to an extent I would agree anyway. They tend to be something I get a nostalgic craving for rather than actually want!

    • Unfortunately “crumpets” sold by American purveyors like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are nothing like crumpets. They look right but have totally the wrong texture. You need to get crumpets from the UK (or Aus/NZ). Or mail-order them from an importer. Yes, it’s ridiculous.

  3. They played The Ukraine, not Croatia.

  4. The US convention is pretty much the same for sports teams, they act as plural. For example “The Texas Rangers are the team to beat in the AL”. The difference is that American sports teams generally have nicknames in plural form. So, if you stick with the American convention you’d end up saying “The Rangers are the team . . .” while “The Heat is the team . . .” which is inconsistent. Better to stick with British usage. As with British-style comma placement with respect to quotation marks, it’s more logical than the American convention, and is bound to win out over time.

  5. British English doesn’t have a rule about whether to use singular or plural verbs after collective nouns except in a few cases: ‘police’, ‘staff’ and ‘personnel’ are plural; ‘herd’ is singular. Sometimes, though, one feels more natural than the other:

    The government is failing because it’s a coalition.
    The government are failing because they’ve betrayed their principles.

    Notice, too, that you use the singular of an institution and the plural of a group of people. Although collective nouns can usually be seen as either of them, you should be consistent with pronouns:

    Swansea has had a run of victories, It’s a talented team which should do well next season.
    Swansea have had a run of victories. They’re a talented team who should do well next season.

  6. Sorry, I was neglecting to answer the question in the title. It depends whether ‘England’ means the country or the team.

    England is a ‘green and pleasant land’ that’s frequently quite grey and unpleasant.
    England are a hard-working team who haven’t been as successful as they perhaps deserve.

    In the first case it had to be singular, but in the second you can choose.

  7. GARFIELD: But the problem is, as you observed, if you use the British convention, you sound like a poncy–

    Of course, this shoud read

    “You sound like a ponce!”

    Things are “poncy” – That shirt is a bit poncy, or that decor is abit poncy
    or, you can act ‘poncy’ – He is acting a bit poncy
    or, be a ‘ponce’ – He is a ponce, you are a ponce

    Ponce is usually used in a derrogtive sense againt an meterosexual male for instance.

    • Read more carefully. It doesn’t read “You sound like a poncy.” It reads “You sound like a poncy … rock critic.”

  8. And the ‘wedgie’ – Brit or not?

  9. While reading the blog archives I came across the link to differences between the US and original versions of the Harry Potter books. One difference that jumped out at me was that the original versions used plural verbs for Gryffindor and Bulgaria but the US editions used singular verbs.

  10. If you read 18th and 19th century American writing, Americans then often employed the practice now regarded as British. We’ve become estranged from our roots.

  11. Pingback: Whale-spotting? | Not One-Off Britishisms

  12. Ed: If you MUST correct someone, do it correctly: it is NOT THE Ukraine, it is Ukraine.

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