Q&A: One nation?

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Q: Is a country a singular or plural entity?

A: Good question. After all, a nation can be both a united front but also made up of millions of people.

Q: Exactly! So, is it “Australia play Thailand in the next soccer qualifier” or “Australia PLAYS Thailand”?

A: Well, it can be both.

Q: Phew.

A: But there is a caveat.

Q: A caveat? Is that where a bear hibernates at?

A: Haha. No – it’s Latin for “let the person beware”, pronounced cav-ee-at. It just means there’s a catch or condition. Used a lot by lawyers.

Q: Ahem, I knew that.

A: And the caveat here is that you can’t just chop and change.

Q: My aunt Ruth used to worked as a sous chef and then would perform in a band straight after. She often chopped then changed.

A: It’s amazing how many aunts and uncles you have.

Q: We’re a big family.

A: So back to the countries – we’re dealing with collective nouns here. Groups of things bundled together as one. And that’s the problem – there are times when it can make more sense to call Australia a singular, such as on the world stage. “Australia has strengthened its trade ties with China” for example.

Q: Okay.

A: But at other times, such as when highlighting a group of individuals (i.e. a sports team), we would see “Australia have won the match by an innings and five wickets.”

Q: Actually I’m not sure we will be seeing that for a while…

A: True. It’s all about context. In American English, collective nouns are almost always treated as singular.  However, in British English, it can depend on whether the writer sees the noun as a bunch of individuals or a whole unit – so plurals are also common.

Q: So you can use both then?

A: We’d recommend going with singular most of the time – it will generally sound better and everyone accepts it. Same applies for any collection of people such as a team or an organisation; they’re always a singular.

Q: Examples?

A: “The team won its 10th straight game on the weekend. It’s great that XYZ Corp lets its employees off to play in the competition.”

Q: Ah, okay. “Its” instead of “their”…

A: That’s right. And the same goes for talking about the government, police, army unit and any other collection of individuals. But remember your big family?

Q: Yep.

A: It’s fine to refer to them as singular, but out of all the groups, “family” often gets the plural treatment – for example, “my family are coming over for dinner”. Maybe because we know the individuals it feels more like “members of my family are coming over” rather than simply “the family is coming over”.

Q: True, that could be it.

A: Also, people incorrectly apply a plural to countries that are already end in S – like the United States or The Netherlands.

Q: So it’s best to say instead that “The Netherlands is a lovely place to visit” or “The United States is having talks with North Korea”?

A: It is. And going back to your original question, we’d recommend saying that Australia PLAYS Thailand in the soccer.

Q: I’m just glad we’re not playing that team from XYZ – did you hear they have won 10 straight games?

A: Haha. Yes, it HAS won 10 straight games!

Q: Oh dear, this is tricky stuff.

A: Just remember, for conversational writing, it’s okay to chop and change. But when writing more formally, be consistent with one – and usually singular is best. Australia is counting on you!

Q: They are? I mean, it is? Okay, I’m stopping…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like us to explore, email it to us today!

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