Submitted by mike3  •  July 20, 2010

Team names — singular or plural

Watching the World Cup recently has prompted me to ask: Why do the announcers refer to teams as if they are plural? For instance, “England are on the attack.” I think it should be “England is on the attack,” as we are referring to the English team which is a single unit and therefore singular?

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Maybe this can be helpful:

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The link above is somewhat helpful, but doesn't address the question specifically. In the UK (and other English-speaking countries outside North America), just about all collective nouns (e.g., team, or the name of a team, such as "England") take plural verbs. Hence, "England were playing generally lousy football." If you listen to Versus Network's Tour de France coverage, you'll hear things such as "The Radio Shack team are led by Lance Armstrong," since the announcers are again British.

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I agree with Steve - Kestrel Aerie. I started watching more soccer/football this year, and it really perplexed me to hear constantly the singular team names followed by plural verbs. Last night I watched on TV a match played in Boston's Fenway Park (between Celtic F.C. of Glasgow and Sporting C.P. of Lisbon), and I believe the two American announcers always used singular verbs with the club names (Celtic and Sporting). But then a very good source notes that although in the US singular verbs are commonly used with team place names (Boston, New York, Colorado), plural verbs are used with singular team names such as the (Miami) Heat and the (Utah) Jazz:
And this Wikipedia article is pretty thorough on Brit vs US differences, including verbs used with collective nouns:

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England on the attack" vs. "England are on the attack".

I would say that "England are on the attack" refers to a team who’s players are on the attack. This is plural – hence “are”. To say "England on the attack" would infer the country of England as a whole was on the attack. England as a country is not on the attack, but a team of players representing England are on attack.

But, that is just my opinion...

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"To say 'England [is] on the attack' would infer the country of England as a whole was on the attack. England as a country is not on the attack, but a team of players representing England are on attack."
The context where this phrase is being used is a football game. In this context, it can be assumed that saying, "England is on the attack" is referring to the English national football team, and not the English military. For example, if one was to hear, "England is on the attack" on the local news, one would assume that the English military is attacking another country.
Using YOUR logic, saying, "England are on the attack" during a football broadcast would infer that the individual citizens of England were on the attack. This is obviously not the case because that interpretation would be completely out of context.

That said, I agree with what providencejim said. I believe that the base of this confusion is a cultural difference between the US and the UK. I am an American and I have always found the usage of plural by the British very odd. In general, I find that football teams are ambiguously named: Birmingham City, Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Aston Villa, Inter, Milan, Ajax, etc; compared to American football teams: Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, etc. This is the key to the discrepancy. When Americans want to refer to an NFL team as an organization we use the city and when we want to refer to an NFL team as the collection of players, coaches, and fans, we use the team name. For example, “Chicago is beating Green Bay” and, “The Texans are doing well this year.” Since football fans across the world generally only have one name to choose from, they say, "Birmingham are" and, "Birmingham is" based on the desired usage. I don't understand why the British and others INSIST upon using the plural even when the singular should be used. My only explanation would be either habit or stubbornness, or both. I recognize that there are times when a team should be referred to as a team of players, coaches, and fans, yet there are also times when a team should be referred to as a single entity.

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"Group" is a collective noun. I'm an American, and the following sounds awkward to me:

"A group of people are on the attack."

But this sounds correct to me:

"A group of people is on the attack."

Is it the opposite for you English out there?

What happens when I use a collective noun in these sentences:

"There is a group."
"There are a group."

Since the verb is determined by the term "group," the British would choose the second sentence as correct, but the second sentence sounds ridiculous to my U. S. of American ear.

To be even clearer about my problem with collective nouns, here are a few more sentences, which seem incorrect to me, though they follow the British rule of always treating collective nouns as plurals:

"There are the team, Manchester United, leaving the field in glory."
"There are the band, Radiohead, conquering the world."
"There are the group of Americans messing up grammar for the rest of us."

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Must be a British thing ... An American would say, "England is on the attack."

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UGH, it PAINS me to watch international sports for this very reason, hearing the SEMANTICS instead of the correct GRAMMAR!

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And it equally pains me to hear that the family, a bunch of flesh and blood individuals, "is" coming for Christmas. It is, as AnWulf says, a British thing. We usually see group nouns or collective nouns as representing a group of individuals rather than a unit. It's just a different way of thinking, that's all. Americans seem happier with formal agreement, while we prefer notional agreement. In the right context, neither is more correct than the other.

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@BrockawayBaby - 18 months later. I'm afraid it's not as simple as that. Let's take the word 'government'. After an election we might say "There is a new government", but later on that the government "are introducing a new law". Sometimes we see the government as an entity, sometimes as a group of people.

"My family have decided to move to Nottingham." - real flesh and blood people
"The average family has 3.6 members" - a concept
"My firm are wonderful. They do all they can do for me." - the managers etc
"My firm was founded in the 18th century" - an entity

I don't think we often use plural after the construction "There is/are" when the noun is singular, except with expressions like "There are a number of ...". Nor do we usually use a plural verb before a group noun, only after it.

And I'm afraid these sentences wouldn't seem natural to me even in the singular:

"There is the team, Manchester United, leaving the field in glory."
"There is the band, Radiohead, conquering the world."
"There is the group of Americans messing up grammar for the rest of us."

Why say team, or band here? We know what they are.
"And there's Manchester United, leaving the field"
"And there's Radiohead," conquering the world."

And no doubt some Brits (but not me, of course) might say:

" There's a group of Americans messing up grammar for the rest of us." (NB a, not the!) - Actually it's more likely to be the other way around, as the American feel for grammar seems to be rather more formal than ours. I think 'singular the", for example, is much more of an issue for Americans than Brits.

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Warsaw Will - well said.

I don't get why this confounds Americans so much. They have no problem (at least, as far as I know) substituting the plural pronoun 'they' for various collective nouns, acknowledging that context sometimes implies the plural. They also give sports teams plural sounding names, apparently with no concern for the fact it is still a single entity.
I think you hit the nail on the proverbial when you said it comes down to an American preference for formal agreement rubbing up against a Brit preference for notional agreement (or vice versa, more often than not).
I'm a lover of the English language, and feel like vomiting through my nostrils at the rather rigid view of grammar and language held by many. I'm far more impressed by a person's overall 'command' of a language than by grammatical accuracy (as a rule).

The idea of languages having 'rules' (in the strict sense of the word) is rather amusing, as though you run the risk of being escorted off the premises for improper grammar usage, or being banned from further conversations.

Anyhoo, I thought it a good point well-made, and thought I'd say as much.


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If two or more players are attacking, "England are on the attack" seems a better verbal description of the events than "England is on the attack".

I've never liked the American tendency to use a coolective noun with a singular verb. It never seems to marry well with the idea that individuals may have different opinions and perform different roles. I always think of a team as a "they", rather than a he/she/it. Thus, I prefer "Newcastle beat Chelsea" to "Newcastle beats Chelsea".

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I would take "Newcastle beat Chelsea" as a past tense.

Noting 'they', 'them', or 'their' as a genderless singular as a long, long history. Thus, putting them to a collectiv noun that is singular is not out of place.

team is
teams are

band is
bands are

government is
governments are

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Teacher in a South African school asks class, "What is wrong with the following sentence? ''There is ten cows in the field' "
Jannie answers, "Perhaps one are a bull."


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@AnWulf - Good on you for backing singular they. However the examples with verbs you then give are fine for American usage, but in British usage (which is what some people are complaining about here) would need to read:

team is/are
teams are

band is/are
bands are

government is/are
governments are

I think we Brits (and the British media) tend to use a plural verb with a singular group (or collective) noun more often than a singular verb. Because we normally think of them as groups of people rather than as entities.

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I am British and yet I fully concur with the Americans . England or any country ought to be used in the singular , after all the players are representing their country and more importantly the word is singular. It is indeed painful to listen to " France have just scored a goal" . This is not only grammatically wrong but it is also illogical as only one of the French players has just scored a goal. Why , therefore, doesn't the commentator just say this.
Never understood the use of "England supporters" either . Surely, they are English supporters or supporters of England. It becomes even more baffling when the same commentator goes on to talk about the French or the Scottish supporters . The problem as I see it is that the news media in England have no clear strategy for maintaining good grammatical rules and the editors do not rectify the mistakes made by their journalists . Also the standard of education in England is very low with schools teaching little or no grammar leaving the common masses to learn their English from what they hear on television or what they read in tabloid newspapers.

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@colin shaw - in terms of "good grammatical rules" when using group nouns, sports commentators are only following standard practice in British English; just look at any British newspaper, British grammar book or British usage guide, or the Wikipedia article linked to above. This is sometimes called "notional agreement" and is the way most of us Brits naturally think about these things.

And what on earth is wrong with England supporter, after all we have Arsenal supporters, Liverpool fans etc?. You wouldn't normally talk about a Liverpudlian supporter (they might support Everton!). I see plenty of people in Poland wearing England T-shirts, but they're certainly not English. What is important is who they support, not their nationality. And a supporter of England sounds a bit long-winded to me.

A site search of the Guardian brings up these figures (and remember "supporter of / fan of" won't necessarily be about sport):

England supporter - 271
English supporter - 58
supporter of England - 4
England fan - 746
English fan - 220
fan of England - 26

and for comparison

Scotland supporter - 18
Scottish supporter - 7
supporter of Scotland - 1 (but possibly about the country, not the team)
Scotland fan - 63
Scottish fan - 16
fan of Scotland - 0 (1 about the country)

The ratios seem pretty consistent and conclusive to me. Again you may not like it, but it's certainly common usage.

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I maintain that England is (are) a country and not a euphemism for a football team . One ought to read . "The English football team is playing the Dutch team" ( or would you advocate the Holland team ) . If you wouldn't say Holland team or Denmark team then why would you say England team? The fact that everyone says something wrong does not make it right. This anomaly has crept into the England language, created by journalists for their own slick ends and people like yourself have forgotten what is actually correct. As far as Liverpool is concerned , you are right because Liverpool FC does not represent the city of Liverpool and it is therefore just a name . As far as Arsenal is concerned there is no adjectival form. Your point about not all supporters of England's national side is probably the reason why this anomaly was coined in the first place. When English fans behave appallingly abroad the use of England fan is an attempt to mitigate the damage done to England's reputation( or is that now the England reputation? ) by inferring that the supporters were probably not really English. Scottish supporters are Scottish and proud to be called so.

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In grammar it's the WORDS which are singular or plural not the things they describe. The same goes for masculine, feminine and neuter words found in most Indo-European languages . Die Regierung ( the government) in German is feminine but it's composed of both men and women . The WORD is a feminine singular and is treated as such . The English word government , a body composed of men and women.It has no gender but is also singular , the plural being governments.
Die Regierung ist eine höchsten Institutionen eines States . The government is one of the most important institutions of state. Nobody in Germany would dream of saying " Die Regierung sein eine "........The government are one of .... The same goes for French , Italian, Spanish and the other members of the language group of which English is a member. These peoples have not allowed semi- educated people to step in and savage their language the way English language ( or is that now the England language ?) has been savaged.

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@colin shaw - from Fowler's (Third edition) - "In BrE it is in order to use either a plural
verb or a singular verb after most collective nouns, so long as attendant pronouns are made to follow suit: 'when the jury retires to consider its verdict 'or 'when the jury retire to consider their verdict'. The same principle applies to all the main collectives like army, audience, clan, company, court, crew, folk, government, group, herd."

According to you, "people like yourself have forgotten what is actually correct". No, I'm afraid it's "people like you" who jump to conclusions without bothering to check with Wikipedia or any of the other sources I mentioned. This principle is very well known on grammar sites. And what the German grammar lesson had to do with anything beats me.

As a Scot myself, I would probably refer to Scottish fans, but I think this is just a usage difference. The figures for the Scotsman and the Herald are about equal for Scotland and Scottish, for both supporters and fans. And both papers refer to both the Scottish team and the Scotland team. Personally I wouldn't say anything team, simply the name of the country. "Holland are playing Denmark" "Scotland are playing really well at the moment", but that doesn't make other people wrong.

Where I might agree with you is that when Scottish fans go on the rampage they are always Scottish, but on one famous occasion when the English did the same, Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, announced that it was a sad day for Britain. Wait a minute, was our reply.

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