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Company is/Company are

November 11, 2013

Based on a writing tip I recently sent to my work colleagues. I substituted ‘Acme’ for the company’s real name. And note that this post uses Australian English spelling and refers to Australian authorities, as we are based in Australia writing for an Australian audience. If you’re not in Australia, I think you can deal with that ;-)

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This writing tip was prompted by a question Stuart asked:

Could you address the issue of a business entity – do you treat it as being singular or plural? For example ‘Acme is organising a charity fun run’ or ‘Acme are organising a charity fun run’. I see more and more instances of people using the latter. From my high school grammar, I recall the former being correct.

I thought the answer would be easy, but it’s not. In fact, there is no right answer. So many factors come into play, particularly whether you learnt American English or British English, but also whether you are implicitly referring to the people inside the entity or just to the entity itself. In addition to whether the entity (a collective or group noun) is singular or plural and thus which verb it takes, there’s a side issue of whether you can refer to the entity as a ‘who’ or a ‘that/it’. As I said, it’s complicated…

From my research into this, I found:

  • The Australian Style Manual (p71) says: ‘While either singular or plural agreement is grammatically correct, the singular is recommended for Commonwealth [of Australia] publications—both for consistency, and to present a cohesive image in reference to government bodies and activities.’ My comment: Based on that, you would use ‘… the Department of XXX is…’, and extrapolating from that, you would use ‘Acme is…’
  • Macquarie Dictionary has this under ‘collective noun’: ‘It is possible to treat collective nouns as singulars or plurals depending on whether the sense of unity or the sense of plurality is uppermost in the mind of the writer. Thus thinking of a team, we can say Australia is batting first or, thinking of the players, Australia are batting first.’ My comment: Macquarie suggests that it depends on what the writer is thinking, not on what the reader might be thinking.
  • British English prefers that a collective noun is treated as a plural and thus it takes the plural verb form, therefore ‘Acme are…’. Conversely, American English treats a collective noun as singular and thus it takes the singular verb form (i.e. ‘Acme is…’). My comment: As Australians, we’re sort of stuck in the middle—our exposure to American English is quite high (through the media and because our parent company is based in the US), and we tend to be more informal in speech than the more traditional British English. Our Australian style guides and dictionaries tend to have a bet each way and often don’t give clear guidance..

One of the issues is that entities such as companies don’t ‘do’ things—it’s the people inside them who take actions. Implicit in many phrases like ‘Acme is/are…’ is that you’re really referring to the people inside the organisation who are making the decisions, taking the actions, making the things, doing the stuff, etc. But we typically don’t use phraseology like ‘The staff of Acme is/are…’ and instead we just substitute the entity’s name without explicitly mentioning the people.

About ‘who’ versus ‘that’: One school of thought is that a legal entity such as a company is not a person, so it cannot take ‘who’ and therefore must take ‘that’ or ‘it’. See the references below for more on this.

Bottom line: This is no ‘right’ answer. Language and its usage evolves over time and across geographic areas, sometimes very quickly. What sounds right to one person may well sound wrong to another, even if they were educated under the same system but a few years apart. The main thing is to be consistent WITHIN your document, no matter which variation you choose to use.

(And because you want to know my preference, it would be ‘Acme is…’ as that construction sounds better to my ear—and it follows the advice of the Australian Style Manual. Of course, I might try to reword the sentence to avoid the issue altogether ;-) )

More on this:

[Links last checked November 2013]

One comment

  1. Er don’t look now but… It can happen to all of us, but if this bit isn’t wrong, it sure looks that way:
    ‘British English prefers a collective noun is singular and thus it takes the plural verb form… American… plural… takes.. singular.. ‘
    Maybe vice is/are versa?



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