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If you do a lot of writing in your day job, you’re going to be mentioning companies, organisations, government departments – that kind of thing.  And sooner or later, you’ll be asking

Does a company or organisation take a singular or plural verb?

Is it…

  • Microsoft keeps its customers informed
  • Microsoft keep their customers informed?
  • The United Nations is a waste of space
  • The United Nations are a waste of space?

Many people have got mildly stressed over this singular/plural dilemma.

That’s why I thought I’d do my bit to clear up the confusion by taking a look at whether and when a company etc takes a singular or plural verb.

US v British

If you’re from the USA you’re probably scratching your head and wondering what the problem is.  For you, a company name nearly always goes with a singular verb.

However, speakers of British English tend to use either singular or plural.  The latter is especially popular in speech.

I’m afraid there are no hard-and-fast rules (then again, perhaps this is a good thing).  The most respected style guides vary.  But I like to have a rule of thumb, and mine says that a company or organisation is ‘it’.  In other words, the verb should be in the singular, as in Microsoft is doing well (after all, Microsoft is a company, and we wouldn’t say ‘the company are doing well’, would we?).  Similarly, The United Nations consists of many members, but we should consider it a single entity.

Here’s an example from Wikipedia, with both the verb and the pronoun in the singular:

  • Basalt Rock Company… was founded in 1920…It later branched out into the ship building business

In theory, the same rationale should apply to a collective noun such as team, where a collection of parts are considered a single whole:

  • Manchester United is doing well this season (as it happens, Man Utd is a company as well as a team)

However, British English loves to use the plural – especially for its sports teams, as in this line from the Daily Mirror the other day:

  • Manchester United are interested in 16-year-old Benfica forward Umaro Embalo

So is it simply that – a matter of personal preference or which side of the Atlantic you call home?

What are we talking about – the company or a bunch of employees?

Well, there’s actually a bit of logic to steer you towards either the singular or the plural.  In both the USA and UK, it’s good practice to base your choice on whether you mean it’s the company as a single entity that is thinking/saying/doing in the context of the sentence, or whether you are referring to the individuals (or at least some of them) within the company.

  • The Big Pizza Company wants to expand overseas (singular)
  • The Big Pizza Company are at loggerheads over the proposal to cut the pay of middle-tier managers (plural)

See the difference?  In the second sentence, we’re talking about the parts that make up some or all of a company.

I have my own favourite two-second test to decide whether to use the singular or plural.  If the company is in ‘business-y’ mode – reporting profits and losses, plans and mergers and so on – then it’s a single body:

  • Biggs Agency has reported a 10% increase in sales (singular)

But if the sentence is dealing with ‘people’ stuff – internal activities, office parties – I think of the company as 6, 12 or 300 individuals (any number, really), so I use the plural.

  • Biggs Agency are having their regular Friday night drinks in an unusual place this week (plural)

Do you have your own preference?