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I'd say Microsoft have a way of bending the rules and I know that McLaren have won the championship. While this sounds strange, I believe it is correct English (sorry, I'm not native).

But when it's a small company, would you still use it this way? Is a company always plural, or are small companies singular? I.e., would you say Bakery Johnson makes fine bread or Bakery Johnson make fine bread? Is it My book seller, Woody's, have moved or is it has moved?

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9 Answers 9

up vote 45 down vote accepted

These company names are collective nouns. In general, in American English collective nouns almost always trigger singular verb agreement (after all, "Microsoft" is grammatically a singular noun, even if semantically it denotes an entity made up of many people). It is apparently much more common to use plural verb agreement in British English. It doesn't have anything to do with the size of the company.

Lots of good information here: Language Log on collective nouns, etc.

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It may have been British English. Thinking back, I see this practice happening on every other sentence in The Economist, for instance, which is, I believe, a British magazine (?). That said, collective nouns trigger plural in Br. English, but singular in Am. English, correct? –  Abel Aug 19 '10 at 16:29
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Yes, but if you take a look at that language log article, you'll see that it's not quite as clear cut as that. But basically, it's just a dialect difference. –  Alan Hogue Aug 19 '10 at 19:59

British English treats collective nouns (corporations, departments, etc.) as plural. American English treats them as singular. The size of the group is irrelevant.

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This is not true. 'British English' treats (or rather most people in the UK treat) collective nouns as either singular or plural, depending on whether the group is being considered as a composite whole, or the individual members are being considered (this practice being known as notional agreement): The team was founded in 1876. / The team were seen drinking till all hours in the 'Drockiwooney' last Thursday. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 15 at 8:47

I think it is most people's tendency to infer the people at the company as those doing the action described ("bending the rules") and therefore the plural sounds correct when that is the message you are trying to put across.

When it is the company as a single corporate entity, the singular works better ("Microsoft has bought Acme Widgets", "Acme has a great policy on renewable energy"). For this reason I would say "Woody's has moved" as I presume the entire company, stock and staff all went together.

You may find that some smaller companies deliberately use the plural when they want to emphasise the personal nature of things, real people doing/making stuff, or they will tend towards the singular when they want to sound bigger and more businesslike. "Acme recycles used paper" sounds like a corporate policy rather than the whim of one or more members of staff, even if there is only one person there.

It also leads to me to think about the corporate "we" - "At Microsoft, we write great software" is only true of a very small proportion of their staff who are actually developers/testers/project managers (arguably), and not of all staff such as sales and marketing etc. (I'm not getting into a debate about the proportion of MS software which is or is not great, save it for techcrunch).

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Speaking as a former Microsoft employee, I just want to clarify that the “proportion of their staff who are actually developers/testers/project managers” is not “very small” but rather more like half the company. –  nohat Sep 4 '10 at 17:46
    
Perhaps this is still the case in the US but in most other countries (excluding India and China) it is mainly S&M. –  Anonymous Type Nov 14 '10 at 23:28
    
I was speaking of the entire corporation, world-wide. Yes, individual offices in countries that don't have a R&D presence are mostly sales and marketing, but even though there are many of them, those offices are quite small in the grand scheme of the company. –  nohat Jan 24 '12 at 7:05

I'm English (brought up near Oxford), and usually use the plural. For example, I used to work with an organisation called the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and I was accustomed to writing “the IFS are”, not “the IFS is”. Or, speaking of local politics: “Oxford City Council do not build enough council houses”, rather than “Oxford City Council does not build enough council houses”. I didn't consciously decide to use this syntax: it's just how I was brought up, so it is probably typical of British English, at least in my part of England.

I've just discovered an ambiguous formulation which I feel vindicates my habit. There was a recent legal case where Google forced the founder of a cheap-alcohol-search Web site to change its name from Groggle to Drinkle.

So the question is whether to write “Google have a lot of lawyers” or “Google has a lot of lawyers”. In my opinion, the latter is ambiguous, because “Google” in the singular could denote the search engine -- which, not being animate, doesn’t own lawyers or anything else. Using the plural eliminates the ambiguity.

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I thought it was probably a local use. The ambiguity case is intriguing. Glad you added it! –  Abel Jan 29 '12 at 22:08

A corporate entity is a singular proper noun, so the above sentence ought to read "Microsoft has a way of bending the rules". If it helps, replace the proper noun with the definite article, e.g. "the company" in this case, and rephrase to suit.

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See my comment with Alan's answer. It may depend on British or American English. –  Abel Aug 19 '10 at 16:33

The plural always look wrong to me. Would you ever say "Microsoft are a big company"?

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The presence of "a big company" (singular) there influences the choice of is/are. I would say things like "Microsoft released an update to their software today…", etc. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 7 '11 at 15:01
    
But you might also say "Microsoft released an update to its software today", and searching the web gives far more hits for the exact phrase "Microsoft released an update to its" than for "Microsoft released an update to their". –  phoog Sep 27 '11 at 15:36

First of all, the choice has nothing to do with the size of the company, on any measure.

Traditionally, companies are singular (they are, after all, a single entity separate from their members, employees, or directors), and take the pronoun 'it'. However, modern usage tends to include treating the name as a collective noun instead, and using the pronoun 'they'.

I usually treat company names as a collective noun, except when the company primarily exists solely as a legal entity, and not a trading entity that employees people (because there is no body of persons to describe, especially if it has only a single member).

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But 'treating company names as collective nouns' doesn't dictate whether you afford them singular, plural, or notional concord. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 1 at 7:46

Common practise seems to dictate that the use of singular or plural depends on how you're referring to the group. If you're referring to the team as a team, singular appears correct - if you're referring to the team as a group of individuals, plural is better. For example:

  • The British Army is a superior fighting force.
  • The class of '98 are an interesting group.

The main difference here is the implication that the individuals of the "class of '98" are "interesting", while the "British Army" is only a "superior fighting force" when taken as a whole. The spread of usage does seem to depend upon the particular variation of the language you use - American English seems to favour singular, while British English favours plural.

I would personally start by considering whether the reference is to the whole or the parts that make it up. This does leave some situations where the choice is unclear (eg: "Microsoft released their/its new software today"), though for those you can just decide how personal you want the tone to be.

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Normally a company name is going to be singular. However there are times where a company name refers to a collection of entities.

Abel and Associates, Jones Law Offices, Smith Companies, Johnson Bakeries

In these cases the plural form would be correct.

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Not necessarily. "Abel and Associates is a prominent firm...." See the number of results for exact phrase searches on the web, for these phrases: "and associates is a"; "and associates are a"; "law offices is a"; "law offices are a". Similarly, if "Smith Companies" is group of companies ("collection of entities"), American English would use the singular when referring to the collection, collectively: "Smith Companies is a conglomerate focusing on ...". –  phoog Sep 27 '11 at 15:32

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