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?

12 Answers 12

up vote 77 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
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    I disagree with the premise of the argument in several answers. A (commercial) company is not a (plural) collective noun. It is a (singular) legal entity. The word "company" can also have the more general meaning of "group of people", and that is a plural collective noun, of course. So the company "Microsoft" is singular, but if you use the word "Microsoft" as shorthand for "the employees of Microsoft, considered as a group of people", that is plural. – alephzero Oct 17 '15 at 23:43
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    @Abel As an AmE speaker, we were taught in school that collective nouns were singular when the members were acting in concert, and plural otherwise. That said, the plural examples we were given (such as "the herd disperse") sound contrived, and most people would use singular if they weren't afraid of bad marks. – Spencer Jun 15 '17 at 10:03
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    @spencer, that sounds like a valid argument, though to me the herd disperse sounds rather odd. But that is because it is both singular (before the action) and plural (after the action). Sounds like the couple has children is good (appealing to the couple as a single entity) and the couple divorce today is also good (each go their own way), but I think in that case I'd always hear the couple divorces. – Abel Jun 15 '17 at 10:38

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 '14 at 8:47
  • @EdwinAshworth Yes. Wednesday are beating United. But Wednesday is a Sheffield football club who play at Hillsborough. – WS2 Mar 2 '15 at 8:09
  • @WS2 I detect a subtext here. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 2 '15 at 10:44
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    @EdwinAshworth Not at all. I'm a Norwich City supporter and the Canaries are singing right now. – WS2 Mar 2 '15 at 10:55
  • I remember Norwich beating United at Old Trafford in the Cup many years ago. Two fans had promised to retain their yellow-and-green hairstyles for the rest of the year if this happened. It's about the time I stopped going down to watch United. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 2 '15 at 11:10

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.

  • I thought it was probably a local use. The ambiguity case is intriguing. Glad you added it! – Abel Jan 29 '12 at 22:08
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    Except "Google was founded by Page and Brin" or "Google were founded by Page and Brin"? Google the entity is a singular noun. – Καrτhικ Jun 17 '15 at 10:43
  • Why not just say "Google Inc" has a lot of lawyers. That will clear up any ambiguity. These variations are what make English quite hard. Other Germanic languages have clearer rules around grammar and pluralization. – Eniola Apr 28 '17 at 17:15
  • Since the time when this answer was written, Google has conveniently enabled us to rewrite the examples as follows: "Alphabet has a lot of lawyers." – David K Jan 17 at 4:00

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
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    I think in the expression "At Microsoft, we write great software" the context reveals the reference is to the people and not the firm. If it was the firm (the singular entity), it will have been more like "Microsoft produces great software". – Eniola Apr 28 '17 at 17:18

In British English:

A commercial company is not a (plural) collective noun. It is a (singular) legal entity. But it can be used as shorthand for a "group of people", and that is a plural collective noun.

So the company "Microsoft" is singular, but if you use the word "Microsoft" as shorthand for "the employees of Microsoft", that is plural.

Examples:

Microsoft is a software company from the United States

Microsoft were out celebrating Bill Gates's birthday last night

However, when it comes to sports teams and musical bands, though they might technically be a single entity they are normally treated as plural, even when referring to the single entity. From Wikipedia, for example:

McFly are an English band formed in 2003.

It logically makes no sense to use "are" and "an" together like that: "are" is plural, "an" is singular. But language usage isn't always logical...


Answer shamelessly cobbled together from comments by alephzero and EdwinAshworth, as a definitive Br.E. answer was missing

  • Why not just say: "Microsofties were out celebrating Bill Gates's birthday last night". I think it reads better and is less ambiguous. – Eniola Apr 28 '17 at 17:20
  • @Eniola - I am not trying to come up with "the best way to say something", I am recording how language is used. – AndyT May 2 '17 at 8:27

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).

  • But 'treating company names as collective nouns' doesn't dictate whether you afford them singular, plural, or notional concord. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 1 '14 at 7:46

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
  • @ShreevatsaR and phoog, According to this Channel 9 dicussion on Microsoft are/is, "Microsoft are" is not uncommon. The number of hits you use to distinguish between correct and false, may just as well be the difference between American usage and the rest of the world. – Abel Sep 6 '15 at 19:55
  • Microsoft is American, so we get to decide how it is referred to. – user126158 Jun 13 '16 at 17:59
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    @user126158 English is English, so ... – Edwin Ashworth Nov 18 '16 at 9:14

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.

  • In US usage, a reference to the "parts" has to include a word denoting what parts are referred. So the proper reference would be "the members of the class of '98" if you really meant to distinguish the individuals from the group overall, which would be infrequent. The class of 98 is a thing, it has members. They are different. A business entity is a thing, the people who work there are different and must be specified. Just like you say an airplane's passengers, not just "the airplane ARE**" or worse, "airplane are", which would sound really stupid. – user126158 Jun 13 '16 at 17:56

One of the (possibly beneficial) aspects of being Australian is the "hybrid" Anglo-American usage that we seem to have adopted over a century or so. So you choose the right keyboard, but spelling and grammar checkers can be tricky, and need to be nuanced.

You still need to store words like neighbourhood, organise, honour, practise as a verb, and so on. We still use theatre, centre, labour, and many others, but things are slowly gravitating towards US English, I expect.

With company plurals, I would speculate (with no hard evidence) that they are used equally, so:

  • Manchester United (is/are) playing Real Madrid in Melbourne tonight
  • Microsoft (is/are) opening a major new office in Sydney
  • Ford Australia (is/are) leaving Adelaide in 2017

Either singular or plural would be used in equal measure in the media, and neither would be considered "more correct" than the other.

In terms of companies in general, I think size does matter a bit, but also (as noted above) whether the company name "sounds or feels" pluralish, and whether you're talking about the entity itself, or some elements within it.

So:

  • Baker's Delight is leaving the Metro Centre at the end of the year
  • Baker's Delight are the biggest bread franchise in Australia

I expect that the answer is so context dependent that it's hard to be overly definitive.

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
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    'Ought to read' adopts the stance that using the metonymy '[name of the company]' to represent 'the relevant directors and/or employees etc of the company' is demonstrably unacceptable. But it's a common practice. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 17 '15 at 12:29
  • Using a plural verb with a singular noun always looks and sounds painfully incorrect to me, as an American English speaker, and seems to flagrantly contradict the entire premise of subject/verb agreement... but I guess it's just a dialect thing? – gengkev Apr 19 '15 at 20:52

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

Strictly in all English-speaking countries, all commercial companies, charitable bodies, public authorities and any other kind of corporation corporation are “corporate individuals” (despite my tautology). That makes them strictly singular in the same way you and I are singular… but strictly is not idiomatically.

Idiomatically, plurality depends on whether we are referring to the corporation as a single entity, as in “Microsoft is the richest organization known to man” or some of the people who work for the corporation, as in “Microsoft have some great ideas.” Although “Microsoft has some great ideas” might very well seem more obvious, idiom doesn’t always fit the text-book.

Sometimes it’s either or both, as when it’s equally valid to think that “Manchester United has/have won the cup for a fourth time…” because on the one hand the team won and on the other, the members selected to play that day won.

Google is a fine example because the one noun might denote the search engine, or the corporation that owns the search engine, or some or all of the people who work for the corporation that owns the search engine, or any combination of those at the same time and in which of those cases can we imagine it not remaining singular?

There may be the odd idiomatic difference between American and British or any other country’s form of English and most obviously (last time I looked) many American schools did and most British schools did not teach topics like “container for the thing contained” much less its corollary, “thing contained for the container”.

Are we referring to the team or to the players and either way, are we using the team name to mean the players or the players to mean the team, or what?

Singular or plural, can we really “boil a kettle”? In a boundary we might; otherwise, clearly not.

Again, when we open one can and a number of worms crawl out, is the description singular or plural?

Equally, since that’s a different kettle of fish, does “that” refer to a single kettle or a school of fish - and even then, is that a singular school or a number of individual fish?

Legally, teams or corporations or governments are all, always, singular.

Idiomatically, context over-rides any such rule.

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