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According to Wikipedia, in British English, it is generally accepted that collective nouns can take either singular or plural verb forms. How does this affect their property of being singular or plural in other grammatical contexts? We use plural verb forms, but do we then also use plural personal pronouns?

For example:

England have won the World Cup!

Now is/are England actually plural, or is/are England just used with the plural verb form without being plural in other grammatical contexts?

I am sailing to England themselves

or

I am sailing to England itself?

Which one is correct, and why?

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closed as general reference by FumbleFingers, tchrist, MετάEd, Cameron, coleopterist Oct 17 '12 at 15:49

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Your example "England rule!" is unhelpful here, because in that context it's short for "[The] England [team] rule!" I think it's probably fair to say "England" itself is never a "collective noun" (but the elided word "team" is). –  FumbleFingers Oct 16 '12 at 22:02
    
@FumbleFingers I improved it to make it clear I mean a team (which was the source for my confusion in the first place). –  gerrit Oct 16 '12 at 22:04
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It would probably clarify the point if you looked up collective noun (as opposed to, say, count noun, which Wikipedia recognizes though I don't) –  TimLymington Oct 16 '12 at 22:33
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To your original question: when 'England' means the country, it is obviously singular, but when 'England' means the people in the football team, it is (debatably, less obviously, perhaps even optionally) plural. So, perhaps clarifying what FumbleFingers meant: "England are awesome!" is a comment about a sports team; "England is awesome!" is a comment about the state of a country. The verb form makes it obvious. The sentence "England could be even better" is thus ambiguous without context - just like it is in American English. –  Billy Oct 17 '12 at 3:02
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To your question two comments ago: yes, that feels most natural to me. The sentences with 'has' and 'have' swapped around are both possible, I suppose, but sound very odd to me, because the emphasis is in the wrong place. "England has won the league" seems to remove credit entirely from the players, and "England have vetoed the resolution" seems to attribute undue amounts of credit to individual politicians. There's a degree of fluidity, but certainly in cases like that it feels most natural to me to use 'have' and 'has' respectively, as you did. –  Billy Oct 17 '12 at 3:16

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I am sailing to England itself.

This is the correct usage. England, in the context of the country, is not a collective noun--it is a single country. In the context of the population, England can be used as plural.

The example given on the wikipedia page is "The team is/are in the dressing room". A good test for whether or not plural and singular are interchangeable: add "the constituent members of" before the noun. If the sentence still makes sense, it is ok make plural.

The constituent members of the team are in the dressing room.
The constituent members of England have won the competition.

These are okay sentences.

I am sailing to the constituent members of England themselves.

This doesn't make sense.

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Yet we still say "England have won the competition". Is this not a collective noun? Then what is it? –  gerrit Oct 16 '12 at 21:40
    
@gerrit see my edit –  Ataraxia Oct 16 '12 at 21:45
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@gerrit: different sentence is different. Which is the whole point of the answer. A noun can be collective in one context and not collective in another. –  RegDwigнt Oct 16 '12 at 21:46

gerrit quotes:

According to Wikipedia, in British English, it is generally accepted that collective nouns can take either singular or plural verb forms.

However, the choice is not arbitrary.

British English selects the plural form when and only when the individual members of the team / staff / jury ... are intended or obviously referenced:

The team was founded in 1912. (singular concord mandatory)

The team were fighting amongst themselves. (plural concord mandatory)

The jury was composed of three men and nine women.

The jury were unable to agree on the verdict.

Obviously, jury equates to members of the jury in the second case here, and is an elision.

With

England were beaten 2-1 by Poland. ,

we have the additional complicating factor of metonymy or arguably synecdoche - England stands for the England team, and takes plural concord (Australians and Americans would probably still use singular concord to fit with the singular form of the noun as it appears).

The British convention is known for obvious reasons as 'logical concord'; it is also termed 'synesis'.

There is another point to consider - I think many of us have come across a list of collective nouns at school, including quite a few esoteric ones:

a herd of cows

a colony of ants

a pride of lions

a murder of crows

a bike of ants

a dopping of sheldrake ...

But does one include group nouns such as staff, team, family, group amongst collective nouns, or is it a restricted term?

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