British English vs American English (Part 3): Collective Nouns

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Our three-part series (point here for Part 1 and 2) on common differences between British and American English closes with an examination of the collective noun, a word referring to a group of people or things.

The team have finished the project (British) / The team has finished the project (American)

Senior management are meeting next week / Senior management is meeting next week

Spain are the reigning World Cup champions / Spain is the reigning World Cup champion

Note in the last example how the last word is changed to champion. American-English speakers tend more than British-English speakers to form sentences in which the subject and verb strictly agree. Brits allow exceptions to this normally ironclad grammar rule to emphasise (emphasize?) the collective noun’s implied multiple parts over its singularity. For example, a team, by its very existence, has multiple members, hence ‘The team are…’ is deemed acceptable.

The sporting world prompts collective noun-verb structures aplenty. As football/soccer fans know, Manchester United are perennial powerhouses (‘They won again, unfortunately’). But most tennis mavens agree that Davis Cup is the greatest team competition in the sport. Then there are teams with single names, such as American pro basketball’s Miami Heat, whose fans, regardless of their English tradition, are known to proclaim, ‘They should be NBA champions!’.

As these examples illustrate, even fluent English speakers can be of two minds grammatically when it comes to following the British or American style. The situations presented in this entry are more heard than seen, as conversational English is more permissive of the collective noun than, say, a spellchecking function, which enforces subject-verb agreement of a purer form.

Whichever English you fancy, one guideline always applies: mind your audience. By writing in a style that resonates with your intended reader, you’ll likely be effective in the way that you intend.

See British English vs American English (Part 1): A Brief History
and British English vs American English (Part 2): Spellings and Pronunciations