The plural company

Is this wrong? “Samsung has released a new product. They worked really hard on it.”

According to style books, it is ungrammatical. “Nouns that denote a unit take singular verbs and pronouns” says the AP stylebook.

Let’s look a bunch of instances. In the groups of statements below, which seems right to you?

1a. Dell has announced a dividend.
1b. Dell have announced a dividend.

2a. If Facebook thinks it can avoid regulation, it has another thing coming.
2b. If Facebook thinks they can avoid regulation, they have another thing coming.

3a. If the Miami Heat wins, it will be in first place.
3b. If the Miami Heat wins, they will be in first place.
3c. If the Miami Heat win, they will be in first place.

4a. At Consolidated Consulting, we put your needs first.
4b. I am the CMO at Consolidated Consulting. We put your needs first.
4c. Consolidated Consulting put your needs first.
4d. Consolidated Consulting puts your needs first.

While I’m a content editor, not a copy editor, I frequently encounter people whose natural writing style leads them to treat companies as plurals — but not in every situation. They would choose 1a above because it refers to Dell as a company, either 2a or 2b depending on their mood, 3b, and 4a. They have no problem referring to companies as plurals when they’re thinking about the employees but as singulars when describing their corporate actions. Following what copy editors have corrected in my own writing since forever, I have regrettably change all of these to singulars. This would leave us protesting “Samsung released a new product; they worked hard on it,” because Samsung is an “it,” not a “they.”

In British English, this rule is already gone. And in America, it’s increasingly hard to defend. I tell people to write about their company as “we.” That’s hard to do when the company has to be an “it.”

There are all sorts of workarounds — referring to the employees, for example: “Samsung’s engineers worked really hard on it; they deserve credit.”

But where it seems natural and doesn’t raise agreement questions, I’m inclined to be more tolerant of the plural company. It’s one of those rules that will probably be gone in a few years. Until then, it’s becoming harder and harder to defend.

3 responses to “The plural company

  1. I remain a fan of it vs. they when it comes to referring to a company or any singular organization. The same goes for its vs. their. That said, this may indeed be a losing battle when it comes to editing Gen Z papers.

  2. I’m a science editor. I apply “collective noun” rules to company names when I think its appropriate and it corresponds with the author’s intended meaning. My colleagues fight me on it, but i don’t care. Some editors also protest treating organizations as single entities.They argue that it leads to anthropomorphism or allowing an inanimate object to take the action of the verb. For example, in a sentence like “Dell announced on Wednesday….”, they would insist that Dell can’t announce anything because it’s not a person. Kinda ridiculous, but it persists.

  3. I’m fine with inconsistency around this–it all depends on whether the writer/reader is likely to spontaneously think of the entity itself (singular) or the entity’s management or workforce (plural). I would pick 1a, 2b, 3b, and both 4b and 4d.

    You say in British English, the rule is already gone. I think the rule was never there, and in fact the rule is the opposite. British headlines say things like “IBM DECIDE TO…” and “ENGLAND WIN CHAMPIONSHIP.” It grates on the American ear but it’s consistently done that way.

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