The English Pedant – When is an it really a they?

Do you ever find yourself deliberately avoiding a word or a phrase because you’re not sure it’s correct? If you do, it can mean only one thing: you think about what you say and write. You care. And that is an admirable quality in this day and age.

One such item that concerns me is this: when should a single entity be treated as a plural? In other words, when is an it a they?

This is the sort of thing that proofreaders have to make a decision on. You and I might refer to sports clubs and teams as they, but the stickler insists it should be it: Manchester United is one of the most famous clubs in the world of football. But when we talk about how Manchester United played in 2015/6, we have to conclude that they had a disappointing season (by their standards).

A different sort of stickler might permit the plural, but only in the third person, whereas a Man U supporter is likely to say we. “We haven’t been the same since Fergie retired .”

As a Chelsea fan, I would have to say to the Man U people, “I agree, but you haven’t had such a bad season as we have”. Chelsea have had an abysmal nine months. We are a shadow of our former selves. I can only hope we get back to normal next time.

We make this grammatical exception because we’re talking about a team. Similarly, when a team is representing a country, it becomes they. Brazil is a country in South America, but when its football team plays in the World Cup, it becomes a plural. Brazil are always a force to be reckoned with. So are Germany. As for the US, they haven’t quite got there so far, but they have put up a good showing several times.

You will notice that the person doing the objecting here is referred to as a stickler rather than a pedant. That is because this is The English Pedant, and for once The Pedant is on the side of the  transgressor. So I have permitted myself a bit of leeway with forms of address, and the stickler (more commonly a “stickler for detail”) is a close relative of the pedant, but perhaps a sub species.

What other single things do we refer to as they? Bands, groups, collections of musicians.

The same newspaper proofreader who used to  object to the sports department’s use of they for sports teams was also of the opinion that The Beatles was the most popular band in history, whereas most of us would agree that they were, not it was.

The late, lamented English DJ, John Peel, got himself caught up in this through being a thinker in a world where talking about bands and groups happened all the time. He came to question something that everyone else failed to notice: we say “this is the Rolling Stones, this is One Dimension, that was Bob Marley and the Wailers”. Peel eventually found himself saying “Those were The Crabs on the Crab label with I’m a Crab. And these are The Velvet Underground”.

So where do you draw the line? Perhaps we should all admit that we are pedants up to a point. Those of us who have come out already will not insist that the rest come out with their hands up, just that they  acknowledge that they too have standards.

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