Is a company singular or plural? Part 2

Banana skin

My recent post about the Economist Style Guide included a passing comment about whether companies were singular or plural.  It generated a surprising number of comments and a some grammarphile controversy.

The Economist says they’re singular. I agreed.

But today (coming back from a week’s holiday in Goa), I’ve come across a situation which leaves me scratching my head – a two-person company.  Writing about them as a singular entity seems oddly formal and doesn’t look right at all.

It just goes to prove the old adage: ‘if in doubt, prefer geniality to good grammar’.

46 Responses to Is a company singular or plural? Part 2

  1. Richard Millington January 16, 2007 at 9:02 am #

    I recently experienced a problem with a client called the History People. Sounds plural by natural, but the company should be singular.

    So, “The History People are a….” or “The History People is a….”

  2. Heather Yaxley January 16, 2007 at 9:28 am #

    I feel the use of singular/plural depends on whether you are talking about the company or the people within it. Perhaps it is better with a two-person concern to phrase discussion around “the founders of…” “the directors of…” so it is clear then you are talking about the plural people. Often companies are talked about as the entity when the reference should be more explitely to particular people – especially when emotional or human characteristics are involved.

  3. Sherrilynne Starkie January 16, 2007 at 9:32 am #

    Matthew, I spent a good part of the day yesterday in Liverpool John Lennon airport, unfortunately. But it wasn’t a total loss. I learned two important things. An airport is plural and it’s important to announce there are no announcments. As in: “Liverpool John Lennon airport would like to confirm they do not make flight announcements.” This announcement is repeated about every five minutes.

    • ogharaei April 22, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

      Well, many companies like to refer to “themselves” as “we”, “us”, etc., to create inclusionary texts that describe their companies. “It”, “it’s”, “its” etc., simply make inclusive speech acts difficult.

  4. John Whiteside January 16, 2007 at 10:11 pm #

    I was perplexed by the Economist style guide when you first wrote about it because I’ve always heard collective nouns, including proper nouns, taking the plural in British English. “The team are…”

    When I worked for a large British company, the execs also spoke and wrote this way (“BigCo are….”).

    In both Englishes, collective nouns that are plural in form take plurals.

    This Wikipedia entry describes it pretty well and matches what I’ve always observed:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_and_British_English_differences#Singular_and_plural_for_nouns

  5. Michael Kenward January 17, 2007 at 10:58 am #

    It is depressing to see folks holding up Wikipedia as a reputable source of information. I would have thought that there have been enough reports out there to prove that it is far from perfect and certainly is not authoritative.

    Look at the reference to Gowers, one of the sources I use. It underlines the whole point of the Economist’s style book.

    “Use of the singular verb is not wrong in such instances in BrE. At least one authority (E. Gowers, The Complete Plain Words, 1986) indicates that either is acceptable (provided that usage is not mixed or inconsistent within the same document)….”

    Note the last bit. Style is about consistency, not grammar.

  6. Peter Brooks November 28, 2007 at 7:48 pm #

    With regard to Wikipedia, Nature 438, 900-901 (15 December 2005) established that Wikipedia is as authoritative (or not) as Britannica. If you trust Britannica you can trust Wikipedia.

    With regard to style, consistently bad grammar is not stylish – far from it. If the audience doesn’t know what is right, does that make the style better or worse? IMHO, style is as much about grammar as it is about consistency (even though the two may be mutually exclusive at times)).

    I agree with John Whiteside. However, some entities in the USA demand that they be treated differently, which complicates the issue. For example the FDA demands that it should be referred to as “FDA” and not “the FDA” (so I’m already in the wrong).

    Thus “FDA reports that…” and not “The FDA reports that…”, which even sounds weird, as if FDA was in fact an individual’s initials (like FDR).

    But then I’m one of the few who reflexively cringe when they hear “different than”, “let myself know”, and any sentence that begins “Plus,…”

  7. David Silverman February 7, 2008 at 1:27 pm #

    How about this, then?

    Can you write:

    “Small Baker’s Company Ltd sells cakes and pastries. They can make cakes specially for you on request”

    Or, if you are calling them a ‘they’, do you have to take the plural route to begin with, i.e. “Small Baker’s Company Ltd sell cakes…”

  8. Clive February 25, 2009 at 1:27 am #

    I had this scenario myself when referring to our own company name. It literally starts wit this type of sentence. Seeing as the sentence is referring to the company as a whole then it has to be written in the singular. It is one of those things that make you think twice but is quite logical in essence.

    It may possible be easier to ‘picture’ when you talk about a large well known blue chip company for example and imagine writing a sentence about them.

    for example: “British Telecom is a communications company”

    It is quite obvious that ” British Telecom are a communications company” is not correct.

    ‘are’ is the action word in that second sentence when we are talking about a single entity and clearly incorrect.

    Changing the angle of approach and talking about individuals in a company or partnership takes away the singular necessity anyway because you are now talking about individuals.

    Bob and Sarah are partners in the single entity ‘Bob and Sarah’s Cake Shop”

    A company is ‘always’ singular.

  9. Alfred January 2, 2010 at 3:40 am #

    Interesting arguments, an airport is different from a company right?

  10. Joel January 15, 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    To David Silverman: It seems the lack of a neutral singular pronoun is the main problem with your sentence and current politically correct language.

    Clive: Please tell this guy it is obviously wrong. He does it so much I’m distracted from what he is actually trying to say:
    http://seekingalpha.com/article/182706-strange-pronouncements-from-microsoft?source=yahoo

  11. sam April 15, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    A company is always singular, you’ll find it in most financial house guides. When I was studying for a degree in journalism it was ingrained in us. Hope that clears it up.

    • Matthew Stibbe April 16, 2010 at 8:41 am #

      Hi Sam, I agree with you that companies are singular but there is a surprising amount of dissent on the point, hence the post.

      • sam April 16, 2010 at 9:12 am #

        I know how it feels, I cam across this post when somebody in the office diagreed with me. It feels great proving somebody right, especially when you know you’re right. It’s the same with the apostrophe that sometimes appears, for example, on the end of the company’s clients(‘). I was taught that this apostrophe was redundant and apart from anything else, it just looks wrong. However, my American counterparts have been taught differently and think I’m an idiot.

  12. Amelia Vargo August 6, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    Interesting post – Have just read it because I wanted to prove that I am right in thinking a company is always singular, but have had a unanimous ‘shouting down’ by four content writers in my department that I am wrong! Just goes to show that one can have a writing/ Journalism / English degree, but still not fully understand the correct usage of British English. Thanks for proving me right, even if I’m still considered ‘wrong’ in the office in which I work. Privately, I know I’m right, which gives me great inner satisfaction…

  13. Not-so-smart November 26, 2010 at 9:47 am #

    If a company is always singular, does that mean it should always be “ABC wishes you a happy birthday…..” and not “ABC wish you a happy birthday” ??

    • Matthew Stibbe November 26, 2010 at 11:56 am #

      Opinions differ on this point, but I think that’s right. ABC wishes you… sounds better to me.

      • Simon Wicks February 2, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

        This is a really interesting point. I am a firm believer that a company should be referred to in the singular, asit is a single entity, which would suggest ‘wishes’ is correct. However, with this example, if it is being written ‘by’ ABC, should it be written as if in the first person… i.e. “I wish” would dictate that “ABC wish” is correct – but because it’s being written in the first person, not the plural!!

  14. Virginia Lynch November 28, 2010 at 6:44 am #

    Even though there are three characters in the subject of the sentence, ABC is the name of a single company. Therefore, it needs a verb for a single subject.

  15. not-so-smart November 30, 2010 at 7:55 am #

    I was once told by an English language lecturer that it depends whether its British or American. The British tends to see a company as plural (ie the total no. of persons in the company makes up the company) and the American tends to see a company as singular (ie the company is viewed as 1 “person”). I am quite confused now as to what is really correct.

  16. h3rm January 14, 2011 at 10:33 am #

    The question is, is society singular or plural?
    If society is singular, then a company can be as well, although a lot of people are forming this company.
    The fact that societies are countable… like one society, two societies just like one company two companies, is telling me that company should be singular!
    That is at least my idea to this topic. I am German and sometimes we have even issues in knowing whether a company is male or female!

    • Matthew Stibbe January 16, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

      It’s a long and complex debate but at least we don’t have gender to worry about as well. Except for ships, for some reason, which are generally female.

  17. Roger Syms May 25, 2011 at 11:07 pm #

    Interesting discussion; please tell me, does this also apply to “corporation”?
    The word itself implies an incorporation of several entities, so is that plural or singular?
    My gut feeling is that it is plural, but what do I know?

    • Matthew Stibbe May 26, 2011 at 6:52 am #

      There are two easy way to test whether or not ‘corporation’ is singular or plural. First, does it have an ‘s’ at the end? Second, which sounds more natural ‘the big corporation is based in London’ or ‘the big corporation are based in London’. In both cases, it’s pretty obvious that it is singular. Matthew

      • Roger Syms May 26, 2011 at 7:14 am #

        That seems perfectly reasonable. However my immediate problem is this. Concerning say, the (fictitious) British Domino Corporation, abbreviated to BDC. “BDC was concerned with the outcome”, or “BDC were concerned with the outcome”. Just the the sound of that doesn’t seem quite so obvious.

        What if I know the guys in the set up intimately, plural seems natural.

        • Matthew Stibbe May 26, 2011 at 7:22 am #

          I still say singular. If you want to talk about the people behind the company, you could say ‘the managers were concerned’ or ‘the employees were concerned’ (but it would be singular if you said ‘the workforce was concerned’ on the same principle). Matthew

          • Roger Syms May 26, 2011 at 8:16 am #

            I was just about to concede to your superior knowledge when I noticed your reply to Not-So-Smart on Nov. 26th.

            How come you can be flexible with company ABC, but not corporation BDC?

          • Matthew Stibbe May 26, 2011 at 8:19 am #

            Consistency is the hobgoblin of petty minds! Or, as Groucho Marx once put it, ‘these are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.’ :) Matthew

          • Roger Syms May 26, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

            Now I like that. I have always considered that in order to break rules, first you have to know them.

            Thank you for your help

            Roger

  18. Gayle November 17, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    The name of a company is just that – a name (ie. singular). So even if that name is “Bob and Partners”, it should be followed by “is”, since it is essentially like a collective noun. You wouldn’t say “the army are coming, the class are behind…”. It’s always “IS”.

  19. Jocelyn Ireson-Paine January 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

    Using the singular can be ambiguous. Suppose I have in mind the recent legal case where Google forced the founder of a cheap-alcohol-search Web site to change its name from Groggle to Drinkle. Should I write “Google have a lot of lawyers” or “Google has a lot of lawyers”? 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.

    Jccelyn Ireson-Paine

    • Matthew Stibbe January 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

      To me, the singular reads better and less forced; even in your example. Animation doesn’t count for anything, IMHO, although it is a corporate person legally, Google itself is not animate.

      PS I like the cartoon on your website – Men are from Cowley Road and Women are from Summertown. It could be a whole new book phenomenon! :)

  20. Rubberduckzilla March 3, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    I was already confused before visiting this forum, now i don’t know whether i should represent a company as singular or plural in my report. lol

    Since, the British “invented” English, i will stick to British English. In my case, it looks like a matter of “What came first? The Chicken or the egg?”

  21. Chetan August 19, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

    Well after reading this I’m going to edit my sentence to singular representation. Thank you for exploring this subject.

  22. Iain November 24, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    This is really interesting … while I have always been taught that a company is singular, I have also been taught that “it” is to be personified so consider this …

    I was recently writing a quick report on the activites of certain company, and could not decide which of the following was correct:

    The company is called ABC Ltd; they provide the following services …
    The company is called ABC Ltd; it provides the following services …
    The company is called ABC Ltd; he/she provides the following services …

    Obviously the last sentence cannot be correct. However, while I am inclined to go with the second, it worries me about the personification … Incidently, I overcme my dilema by using:

    The company, called ABC Ltd, provides the following services …

    I would be interested on receiving the forums feedback!

    A last thought, has it got something to do with the royal “WE”??

    Thanks

  23. Sherie January 4, 2013 at 2:53 am #

    I have a question. A friend recently purchased a very expensive sign for her company; however, I believe there’s an apostrophe error. She owns a trucking company, and the name of the company is Things To Move. The sign says Thing’s To Move. Is the apostrophe incorrect, or am I incorrect? I can’t seem to find any clarification.
    Thanks for any help.

    • Matthew Stibbe January 4, 2013 at 8:37 am #

      It sounds to me like the apostrophe shouldn’t be there.

  24. James Khouri March 20, 2013 at 2:59 am #

    I would love an answer to this question. I would like to create a company called Khouri Information Technology and name it correctly based on weather “technology” should be singular or plural. I understand that it is most commonly written in the singular (IT = Information Technology). However, I’d like to know if there’s ever an exception to this seeming rule. Any input?

    • Matthew Stibbe March 20, 2013 at 8:03 am #

      In this case, it’s your name and you can make in singular or plural as you wish and there are good examples of both in existing company names.

      • James Khouri March 20, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

        Hello again,

        I appreciate the answer to my question. If I may, though, sure, owners of companies have the freedom to call their company whatever they want. I can call my computer programming company Strippers R Us. But that doesn’t really answer the question as to whether that would be an appropriate name for a computer programming company. As I’m sure that name is taken, I wonder, again, is Khouri Information Technologies a politically correct name for a company in the IT world? I’ve seen technology of technologies in a quick Google search…That’s really a side point since we’re speaking about a name of a company. But, yes, isn’t “Information Technology” really referring to a compilation of technologies? If so, is it really correct to call my company in the actual plural without having software engineers mock me for not using the common form of IT?

        I recognize the likelihood that this is not the best forum to ask this question..

        James

        • Christopher June 28, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

          You have to love the longevity of an in interesting blog post’s comments thread! Awesome.

          #1 ABC can’t wish (or wishes) anyone a happy birthday since ABC is not a sentient being. The reason the sentence sounds funny is not bad grammar just bad writing.

          “All of us here at ABC wish you a happy birthday” is logically sound, grammatically correct and its actually personal.

          #2 James I’ve most commonly seen the plural “technologies” used as the collective of branches of technology, e.g. Bio Technology, Medical Technology, Nano Technology etc.

          The term “Information Technology” was coined in 1958 by the Harvard Business Review and is perhaps an anachronism since they could hardly have imagined the use of machines beyond data storage, retrieval, processing, and dissemination.

          The common designation of diverse technology functions as “IT” is akin to referring to all technical tradespeople as construction workers or builders.

          If I were you I’d pass on the generic label and speak to what you will deliver to your customer. You mentioned you are a software programmer, something like Khouri Custom Software Solutions.

          • Jürgen Witt September 22, 2013 at 10:57 am #

            First of all, I agree with Christopher – amazing that this thread has been lasting for more than three years now and is still alive. And amazing how good you all argue!

            As a non-native speaker, I was quite surprised to find that I had the same singular/plural issue in English although in my mother tongue (German) there would never be any doubt that the singular form is the one and only correct choice. In German, plural is no option: it would be wrong, straightforward.

            Nevertheless, when answering the following multiple choice test, I instinctively chose the plural form:

            “The company will upgrade ______ computer information system next month.”

            choices: a: there / b: their / c: it’s / d: its (ok, two of which are really weak)

            Thinking about who really performs the action of upgrading, I imagine a plurality of employees of the company who upgrade the system, that’s why I guess plural _feels_ correct, at least for me.

            Our English lecturers teaching language proficiency told us that there was also a cultural influence factor:

            American English speakers tend to use the plural form
            while British English speakers tend to consider singular the right choice.

            Ah… and they taught us that lately (whatever time frame that is) there has been a shift from singular towards plural use.

            Can any of you confirm this?

            Thanks in advance and thank you for this great post!

  25. kalpz April 29, 2014 at 12:54 am #

    how do i write my companys name Mayrose Global (UK) Ltd or Mayrose Global UK Ltd. ?

    • Matthew Stibbe May 1, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

      If you’re writing the official name of the company, you should check your Companies House registration. For example Articulate Marketing’s legal name is ‘Articulate (London) Ltd.’.

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    [...] Bad Language / Is a company singular or plural? Part 2 Matthew Stibbe grapples with a stylistic and grammarphilic controversy: ‘if in doubt, prefer geniality to good grammar’ (tags: english,grammar,stibbe) [...]

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