Since When is a Plurally-Referenced Singular Acceptable?

What follows is an English lesson. If you are a blogger, write for any sort of Internet website, or are a writer in the sports world, this post is for you. This post is also for the rest of us who are tired of your constant violation of the English language.

Read the following sentences out loud:

  • Google are buying Yahoo.
  • Argentina have done well in the World Cup.
  • Before yesterday, Microsoft were doing better in the stock market.

Odd, are they not? Read them again. Sound them out. Something isn’t quite right, is it? Now, compare them to the following sentences:

  • Google is buying Yahoo.
  • Argentina has done well in the World Cup
  • Before yesterday, Microsoft was doing better in the stock market.

Which of these two batches sounds right? Anyone who paid attention to English in grade school would emphatically state that the second batch sounds right. Yet, this common sense grammar is increasingly being attacked and shredded to bits by the Internet media, bloggers and news soruces alike. This poor, deranged group believes that because an organization is comprised of more than one individual, it can rightly be referred to in the plural on a consistent basis.

Newsflash: This is wrong. Not just wrong in the “oops, I don’t know how to use a possessive apostrophe” sort of way, it’s wrong in the “All your base are belong to us” sort of way. It is an affront to the basic constructs of the English language.

So what would posses writers everywhere to abandon common sense and go around describing one country, team or organization as a “they” in order to be consistent when it comes to whether something is referred to in the singular or in the plural, to have it one way, all the time, every time? The problem here is that one of the basic laws of English is being violated: if there is one, you refer to it in the singular; if there are more than one, you refer to them in the plural.

Where does this nonsense come from? Why is Argentina no longer singular? Why is “Google are going to do something” being used in lieu of “Google is going to do something”? It’s an abstraction, plain and simple. The speaker (or writer) is shortening the sentence at some point by making one abstraction, and in order to not break the rule which states that you should not use both plural and singular when referring to the same thing, the writer instead elects to make another abstraction as opposed to correcting the sentence. Here’s what I mean:

The following paragraph shows how people would generally speak:

Brazil is expected to win the World Cup. Why, just recently, they beat Japan, who was playing poorly anyway.

Obviously, this is incorrect, even though the speaker can safely presume that the listener will understand the sentence as follows:

[The team from] Brazil is expected to win the World Cup. Why, just recently, they [the Brazilians] beat the [team from] Japan, who was playing poorly anyway.

In order to correct this sentence, Internet writers could have done the following:

Brazil is expected to win the World Cup. Why, just recently, the team beat Japan, who was doing poorly anyway.

However, instead of doing the common sense thing, writers (especially sports writers) have given in to the pressure of bad Internet grammar, and have opted to make a few more abstractions in order to shorten their word count while unifying the sentence structure. For example:

Brazil are expected to win the World Cup. Why, just recently, they beat Japan, who were playing poorly anyway.

This is obviously wrong. The writer, while keeping in tact the plural referencing within the sentence, is presuming that the reader will understand the following:

[The] Brazil[ian players] are expected to win the World Cup. Why, just recently, they beat [the] Japan[ese]. who were playing poorly anyway.

The problem here is two-fold. First, the writer is presuming the reader will make all the correct abstractions (and for the most part, the writer is correct in making this presumption). Second — and this is the most important — the writer is destroying the flow of the language. The sentence is almost unspeakable! In this case the writer is trying to make plural references universal, even though plural references obviously have no place in some arenas. Here are a few more examples:

  • Canada: singular. Canadians: plural. Usage: Canada is doing better. The Canadians have gone all out this year.
  • Iraq: singular. Iraqis: plural. Usage: Iraq is doing well in this year’s games. The Iraqis have already made an impact.

Now, there are instances when something that seems like a singular is actually correctly referred to as a plural. Examples::

  • The Tampa Bay Lightning were not able to defend their championship status.
  • The Miami Heat have just beaten the Dallas Mavericks!

“Lightning” and “Heat” serve as both singular and plural. (You’ve never heard of “Lightnings” and “Heats”, have you?) In none of these sentences, however, is it OK to eliminate the team name and keep the plural referencing.

  • Tampa Bay were not able to defend their championship status.
  • Miami have just beaten Dallas!

Contrast that to this:

  • Tampa Bay was not able to defend its championship status.
  • Miami has just beaten Dallas!

In all of these examples it is understood that the speaker is referring to the team associated with the city. Yes, the team is comprised of a group of players. Yes, the team is usually referred to in the plural. Still, only the second set of examples actually obeys the laws of English, and as such it doesn’t make much sense to eliminate the team name and still keep the plural referencing. For example, New York is only one city, and the team from New York is only one team. To say “New York are loading up on quarterbacks” is no more correct than saying “The New York Jets is loading up on quarterbacks.”

A pluralistic description of a team is due to the fact that most teams have pluralistic names: Bulls, Seahawks, Raiders, Hornets, Thrashers, Senators, etc. That’s fine, and if the team name is referenced then the team should by all rights be referred to in the plural. When the name is not mentioned, however, it is not OK to talk about it as if the team name was there.

The Miami Dolphins is going to the Super Bowl.

Man, am I ever glad the New York Times never decided to make that abstraction. For years, the laws of writing stated that if you spoke of something plural you stayed in the plural, and if you spoke of something in the singular, you stayed in the singular. Apparently, this is no longer the case.

This is wrong, plain and simple.

Flagrant violators to this basic rule of English include most blogs, most Internet forums, and most sport-related websites. I point out sports-related websites because there are cases, especially when it comes to large news outlets, in which both the correct and incorrect styles are used by different departments. Here are two examples from the BBC:

  • “It is a style, though, that Ecuador have moved right away from.”
    (from http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/world_cup_2006/5093548.stm)
  • “Microsoft has admitted it was late to spot the threat from the net.”
    (from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/5086994.stm)

When a news source as respected as the BBC can’t even get its own act together, what hope do we have?

All in all, here’s what it boils down to: When referring to one unit, such as a sports team or a company, go ahead and talk in the singular, even at the cost of having to transition later on from singular to plural, but use common sense. When it comes to sports, if the team name is mentioned, you will likely need to use the plural. That’s perfectly OK. If only the city or country of origin is mentioned, please do the English language a favor and refer to it as singular. I’m pretty sure the team members wouldn’t mind. Finally, cut down the abstractions. English is screwed up enough as it is without any new nonsensical abstractions, so the less of those there are, the better it is for all of us.

[Editor’s Note: Maybe I should reprint Strunk and White: Elements of Style here. I’m sure it’ll help more than just one or two people.]

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