British and American English differ in the way they conjugate verbs for collective nouns: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=877. For example, an American would probably say "China is winning" whereas a Brit would probably say "China are good."

Similarly, I think the American would say "The Chinese gymnastics team is good" and the Brit would say "The Chinese gymnastics team are good."

My question: what happens when pronouns enter into it?

Brits can say "The Chinese gymnastics team know that they are good." I think that's straightforward enough.

But what about the American equivalent? My American coworker argues for "The Chinese gymnastics team knows that they are good."

To me, this seems to create a clash between the plural "they" and two earlier cues that the subject of the sentence is singular: (1) "team" and (2) "knows." Even if "team" can work as both a plural or a singular, can it really do both in the same sentence?

My personal inclination is to write it as "The Chinese gymnastics team knows that it is good." I suggested this one to my coworker, who didn't like it. I agree that it's weird. Having three consecutive singular cue-words gives too strong a sense of the team's collective conscience, which wasn't implied at all in the British version.

Maybe this question is particular to the verb "know" and isn't (as I originally thought) generally applicable to sentences with both collective nouns and pronouns. But in any case, I'd love to get some opinions on how an American should fill in "The Chinese gymnastics team knows that [???] good."

(I've lived in Britain for 9 years, and America for 12)

  • possible duplicate of [Is there a correct gender-neutral, singular pronoun ("his" versus "her" versus "their")? ](english.stackexchange.com/questions/48/…)
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 1:31
  • 1
    The perfectly grammatical American rendition is: “The Chinese gymnastics team knows that they are good.” Voting to close as exact dup.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 1:33
  • @tchrist: So how come "microsoft says it will {do something}". Are they all wrong, and is the perfectly grammatical American rendition supposed to be "microsoft says they will"? There aren't many hits in Google Books for the second one. So far, I think this question is interesting, and not a dup. Gets my vote (keep 'em coming, jabrew! :) Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 2:07
  • @FumbleFingers Just because “the team knows that they’re good” works doesn’t mean the other one fails. Both are fine. Go ahead and answer if you think there can be a meaningful one that is any different, and we’ll merge as need be.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 2:10
  • This will answer most of your questions. Also see the comments on this answer Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 5:27

1 Answer 1


This is always a problem. I think it has always been accepted that the unit should be treated as singular when it acts as a unit. The board directs that [some action be taken]

...but as plural when indiviuality plays a part e.g. The board enjoyed their Christmas lunch

  • +1 Yes, but I feel Xmas lunch is slightly sneaky example, in that each board member gets a separate lunch. Would all Americans go for the plural in The Board of Censors were shocked by their private screening of the film, for example? Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 12:58
  • I think Americans could easily say were shocked by their ..., was shocked by its ..., or was shocked by their ... in this case. You can't use were shocked by its ..., though—once you make the verb plural, you have to use the plural pronoun. Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 15:55

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