Sunday, May 25, 2014

The team are - Collective nouns in British English

'Our team are playing really well today'

That sentence is absolutely standard in British English, but unusual, 'ungrammatical' even, to American ears. The word team denotes a group of people, and is usually referred to as a collective noun. The standard position amongst grammarians and usage guide writers is that you can use either a singular or plural verb with a collective noun.
There is a difference, however, between American and British usage. While Americans will practically always use a singular verb, British speakers will often use a plural verb, something some people find hard to accept.
During the course of a (let's say lively) discussion on this topic on a language forum, I collected quite a lot of quotes from, and links to, various grammar books, style guides and commentators on English, so I thought it might be useful to gather them all here.
In no sense am I trying to persuade people to use plural verbs with collective nouns: that is your choice. My aim here is just to try and convince people that this usage has a long history and is entirely legitimate.

The basic idea

Here is how two highly respected websites for teachers and students of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) introduce the subject
Collective nouns like jury, team, family, government etc., can take both singular and plural verbs in British English. In American English they normally take a singular verb.

The British Council - Learning English

Verb agreement with collective nouns - In British English collective nouns, (i.e. nouns referring to particular groups of people or things), (e.g. staff , government, class, team) can be followed by a singular or plural verb depending on whether the group is thought of as one idea, or as many individuals

OneStopEnglish

Some examples from the British media.

Sports teams

  • Liverpool are the underdogs in the title race - Daily Mail (football)
  • Yorkshire are well on top in this match, but Durham have shown grit and determination - BBC (cricket)
  • England were by far the better side today - The Telegraph (rugby)
  • Since the Boat Race began in 1829, Oxford have won 77 to Cambridge's 81
    - Time Out

Bands

  • But the Who were already stars in Britain, having established their sound and their personae - Rolling Stone Magazine
  • While Jefferson Airplane were going off into the wilder extremes ... - New Musical Express
  • It's not the first time that Led Zeppelin have been taken to court over their music. - Daily Mail
  • After a decade gigging the Scottish indie scene, Snow Patrol are back in the mainstream with arena tour - Daily Mirror

The government, political parties etc

  • The amount that the British government are paying to keep Windows XP alive is £5.584m - ampp3d (The Mirror)
  • Ukip are the pro-Europeans' most dangerous weapon
    - The Telegraph (UKIP = United Kingdom Independence Party)
  • Number 10 sources are arguing that 'Labour are actually going backwards'.
    - The Spectator (The Labour Party)
  • early indications suggested the SNP are on course to pick up a third seat.
    - Scottish Daily Record (SNP = The Scottish National Party)

Companies

  • Pfizer are serious and they've got a lot of money to spend. They'll need first-class people doing first-class research - GlaxoSmithKline boss Sir Richard Sykes
  • Apple have announced the latest iPad weighs just one pound - The Mirror
  • Mercedes have won every race in Formula 1 this season - BBC Sport
  • Each coin is worth 1p and to celebrate the launch Amazon have given away 400 coins - The Independent

Banks

  • RBS have been awarded 'Best Mortgage Lender Scotland' in the 2013/14 Your Mortgage Awards. - Royal Bank of Scotland
  • The Bank of England have kept interest rates on hold at 0.5%. - ITV

Non media sources

To be honest, while the use of plural verbs for sports teams, bands and political parties is quite standard in the media, the use of plurals with things like companies is less common. This is probably seen as quite informal, and is found much more often on blogs, comments to websites and the social media than in the conventional media. Interestingly, it is quite often used by the companies themselves.
  • Bentley are part of the VW family - Bentley Motors
  • given that Skoda are trying to appeal to young drivers there are several bright tones to choose from - The AA (Automobile Association)
  • Lloyds Bank are affiliate members of the British Franchise Association - LLoyds
  • As Samsung have announced April 11th for World Wide release will it be available in the UK from this date - comment on Vodaphone Blog
  • Miss Selfridge are offering four exclusive personal shopper sessions at our Vogue Fashion's Night Out event. - Facebook

The description of bands in Wikipedia

Wikipedia articles about bands typically start like this: 'The Beatles were an English rock band that formed in Liverpool, in 1960.' So what happens when the name is singular, as in The Who or Jefferson Airplane. They generally seem to follow the British / American divide we've already talked about, with are for British bands and is for American bands.

British bands

  • The Who are an English rock band formed in 1964
  • Fairport Convention are an English folk rock and electric folk band.
  • Oasis were an English rock band formed in Manchester in 1991

American bands

  • Jefferson Airplane was an American rock band formed in San Francisco
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd is an American rock band best known for popularizing the southern hard-rock genre during the 1970s
  • The Velvet Underground was an American rock band, active between 1964 and 1973
Out of the top 35 British bands listed in Wikepedia as being the most successful, 18 have singular names. As I write this, only one, Genesis, has a singular verb in iis Wikipedia introduction.

'The band' at the NME

The New Musical Express is one of Britain's leading music magazines. These figures are from a Google site search:
  • the band are - 78
    (of the first 20, only one doesn't refer to the band as the subject)
  • the band is - 2
    (with another 5 where band is not the subject)
  • the band have - 63
    (of the first 20, all but one refer to the band as the subject)
  • the band has - 2
    (with another 6 where band is not the subject)
  • the band were - 37
    (of the first 20, all have band as subject)
  • the band was - 6
    (plus 4 others where the band is not the subject)

Plural verbs with the names of football teams

It's pretty clear that the use of plural verbs with singular team names is almost as popular in the social media as in the broadcast and print media, especially when we take into account that these social media figures include American users. The figures given are for checkable individual entries. Where there is also a figure in brackets it refers to Googles' front page count (which often bears no resemblance to the final count). I have removed those instances (very few) where I've noticed that Arsenal was not the subject of the verb.
"Arsenal have won the""Arsenal has won the"
The Web165 (802,000)138 (168,000)
Social media
Facebook261 (185,000)41 (8,750)
Twitter569 (94,500)58 (545)
Yahoo Answers4313
Wikipedia61
The broadcast media
BBC10 (133,000)5
ITV70
Sky Sports50
The print media
The Guardian61
The Independent131
The Telegraph71
The Times00
The Express130
The Mail210
The Sun60
The Mirror60
FourFourTwo30

How it works

For a little more detail, but in easy-to-follow language, we'll look at two of the best known grammar books in the EFL world. First, the book which is probably the most popular with EFL students for explanations and exercises for home study :
Some singular nouns are often used with a plural verb. For example:
government   staff   team   family   audience
committee   company   firm
These nouns are all groups of people. We often think of them as a number of people (= 'they'), not as one thing (= 'it'). So we often use a plural verb:
  • The government (= they) want to increase taxes.
  • The staff at the school (= they) are not happy with their new working conditions.
In the same way,we often use a plural verb after the name of a sports team or a company:
  • Scotland are playing France next week (in a football match)
  • Shell have increased the price of petrol.
A singular verb (The government wants ... / Shell has ... etc) is also possible.
These nouns normally take a singular verb in American English:
  • The team is playing well

Raymond Murphy - English Grammar in Use (Cambridge University Press)

And second, one of the most popular reference books amongst EFL teachers:
In British English, singular words like family, team, government, which refer to groups of people, can be used with either singular or plural verbs and pronouns.
  • This team is/are going to lose.
Plural forms are common when the group is considered as a collection of people doing things like deciding, hoping or wanting; and in all these cases we use who, not which, as a relative pronoun
  • The firm are wonderful. They do all they can for me.
  • The firm was founded in the 18th century.
Examples of group nouns which can be used with both singular and plural verbs in British English:
bank, the BBC, choir, class, club, committee, England (the football team), family, firm, government, jury, ministry, orchestra, party, school, staff, team, union

Michael Swan - Practical English Usage (Oxford University Press)

Usage notes in British dictionaries

In American English, most collective nouns are treated as singular, with a singular verb:
  • The whole family was at the table.
  • The government is doing a good job.
In British English, most collective nouns can be treated as singular or plural:
  • The whole family was at the table.
  • The whole family were at the table.

  • The government is doing a good job.
  • The government are doing a good job.

Oxford Dictionaries US

In British English, collective nouns (referring to groups of people) are often followed by a plural verb even when the noun is singular. This does not occur in American English. For example:
  • British English: The football team are rather weak this year.
  • American English: The football team is very weak this year.
Other common collective nouns that often take a plural verb in British English are: army, company, jury, audience, crowd, majority, class, enemy, staff, committee, government and union.'

Macmillan English Dictionaries

In American usage, a collective noun takes a singular verb when it refers to the collection considered as a whole, as in The family was united on this question. The enemy is suing for peace.
It takes a plural verb when it refers to the members of the group considered as individuals, as in My family are always fighting among themselves. The enemy were showing up in groups of three or four to turn in their weapons.
In British usage, however, collective nouns are more often treated as plurals: The government have not announced a new policy. The team are playing in the test matches next week.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, quoted at The Free Dictionary

Comparing the use of verbs with that of pronouns

One way of looking at it is if you would normally use a plural pronoun, it can make sense to use a plural verb.
  • They're playing really well today, aren't they?
  • United are playing really well today, aren't they?
But if you're more likely to use it, then singular is more appropriate
  • It was started in 1908
  • United was started in 1908
Plural forms are used most often when the group is performing some kind of action, singular forms when we are talking more about the group's existence.

Getting a bit more technical

Notional agreement (or synesis) vs formal agreement

This habit we have in British English of often seeing the group represented by a collective noun as a collection of individuals rather then a single unit is known as notional agreement or synesis. This idea of synesis goes back to Greek and Latin, where more importance is placed on the meaning of the noun and verb (or pronoun) agreement than on its strict grammatical form.
Notional agreement is in opposition to formal agreement, where a singular noun always takes a singular verb.
Formal and notional agreement - In British English (BrE), collective nouns can take either singular (formal agreement) or plural (notional agreement) verb forms, according to whether the emphasis is on the body as a whole or on the individual members respectively; compare a committee was appointed with the committee were unable to agree. Compare also the following lines of Elvis Costello's song "Oliver's Army": Oliver's Army is here to stay / Oliver's Army are on their way . Some of these nouns, for example staff, actually combine with plural verbs most of the time.

Wikipedia

Synesis - a construction in which an expected grammatical agreement in form is replaced by an agreement in meaning, as in The crowd rose to their feet, where a plural pronoun is used to refer to a singular noun.

Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, quoted in the Free Dictionary

Collective nouns and nouns of multitude

In some older grammars, collective nouns are referred to as nouns of multitude. In others a distiction is made between a collective noun - a group noun when seen as a single entity and used with a singular verb and/or pronoun(s), and a noun of multitude - a group noun seen as a group of individuals and used with a plural verb and /or pronoun(s).

The Grand Old Men of 20th comment on British English

Henry Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Sir Ernest Gowers' The Complete Plain Words and Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage were probably the books which had most influence on the general public in 20th century Britain. Here is what their authors had to say on the matter:
Flock (a number of sheep or parishioners) is a collective ... and may be treated as a singular or plural (His flock was attacked by wolves. His flock were unanimous in their disapproval)

H.W.Fowler - A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

In using collective words or nouns of multitude (Department, Parliament, Government, Committee and the like), ought we to say "the Government have decided" or "the Government has decided"; "the Committee are meeting" or "the Committee is meeting"? There is no rule; either a singular or plural verb may be used. The plural is more suitable when the emphasis is on the individual members, and the singular when it is on the body as a whole. "A committee was appointed to consider this subject"; "the committee were unable to agree".

Sir Ernest Gowers - The Handling of Words

Such collective nouns as can be used either in the singular or in the plural (family, clergy, committee, parliament) are singular when unity (a unit) is intended; plural, when the idea of plurality is predominant.

Eric Partridge - Usage and Abusage

British media style guides

This is from the Economist Style Guide:
"COLLECTIVE NOUNS
There is no firm rule about the number of a verb governed by a singular collective noun. It is best to go by the sense—that is, whether the collective noun stands for a single entity (The council was elected in March, The me generation has run its course, The staff is loyal) or for its constituents: (The council are at sixes and sevens, The preceding generation are all dead, The staff are at each other's throats). Do not, in any event, slavishly give all singular collective nouns singular verbs: The couple are now living apart is preferable to The couple is now living apart. Indeed, in general, treat both a pair and a couple as plural."
From the Guardian Style Guide:
"singular or plural? Corporate entities take the singular: eg The BBC has decided (not "have"). In subsequent references make sure the pronoun is singular: "It [not "they"] will press for an increase in the licence fee."
Sports teams and rock bands are the exception – "England have an uphill task" is OK, as is 'Nirvana were overrated'
From the BBC Style Guide:
It is the policy of BBC Radio News that collective nouns should be plural, as in The Government have decided. Other departments, such as BBC Online, have resolved that collective nouns should always be singular, as in The Government has decided. BBC Television News has no policy and uses whichever sounds best in context.The difficulty for writers comes because there is no rule.
Collective nouns can be either singular or plural. The advice from Radio News is fine, but think about what you are saying. A lot depends on whether the organisation is seen as a singular entity or as a collection of individuals. It is more natural to write The committee park their cars in the field rather than The committee parks its cars because the committee is being thought of as separate people. It would also be correct to write The committee has decided to ban cars from the field because it is being seen as a single body.
Similarly, The Cabinet are discussing education (because it takes more than one to have a discussion) but The Cabinet is determined to push through the changes (where its members are acting together). There is one rule you must follow, though:
In sport, teams are always plural. England are expected to beat the Balearic Islands ; Tranmere Rovers have extended their lead at the top of the Premiership.

Back to the beginning - earlier English grammars

Robert Lowth

Robert Lowth FRS (1710 – 1787) was a Bishop of the Church of England, Oxford Professor of Poetry and the author of one of the most influential textbooks of English grammar. (Wikpedia) He is often regarded as the father of prescriptive grammar.
A noun of multitude, [9] or signifying many, may have the verb and pronoun agreeing with it, either in the singular or plural number ; yet not without regard to the import of the word, as conveying unity or plurality of idea : as, "My people is foolish, they have not known me." Jer. iv. 22. "The assembly of the wicked have enclosed me." Psal. xxii. 1 6. perhaps more properly than "hath enclosed me." "The assembly was very numerous :" much more properly, than, "were very numerous."
[9]'And restore to his island, that tranquillity and repose, to which they been strangers during his absence.' Pope, differentiation prefixed to the Odyssey. Island is not a noun of multitude; it ought to be his people; or, it had been a stranger.
'What reason have the church of Rome to talk of modesty in this case ?' Tillotson, Serm. 1.49
'There is indeed no constitution so tame and careless of tbelr own defence, where any person dares to give the least sign or intimation of being a traitor in heart.' Addison, Freeholder, No. 53.
'All the virtues of mankind are to be counted upon a few fingers, but his follies and vices are innumerable.' Swift, Preface to Tale of a Tub. Is not mankind in this place a noun of multitude, and such as require the pronoun referring to it to be in the plural number, their?

A Short Introduction to English Grammar, Robert Lowth, 1755

Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley FRS (1733 – 1804) was an 18th-century English theologian, Dissenting clergyman, natural philosopher, chemist, educator, and Liberal political theorist who published over 150 works. (Wikipedia). Priestley was much less prescriptivist than Lowth, much morte tolerant of objective who and constructions like it's me, for example.
It is very common to consider a collective noun as divided into the parts of which it consists, and to adapt the construction of the sentence to those parts, and not to the whole. If an academy should be established for the cultivation of our style, which I, who can never wish to fee dependence multiplied, hope the spirit of English liberty will hinder, or destroy; let them, instead of compiling grammars and dictionaries, endeavour with all their influence to stop the license of translators ; whose idleness and ignorance, if it be suffered to proceed, will reduce us to babble a dialect of French. Johnson. Let the members of it would have been better. In this manner pronouns often mislead perfons. Whatever related to ecclesiastical meetings, matters, and persons, were to be ordered according to such directioans as the king should send to his privy council. Hume's History, vol. 8. p. 49. Can any person, on their entrance into the world be fully secure, that they shall not be deceived. Fair American, vol. 2. p. 26.
It is a rule respecting numbers, that nouns of a singular termination, but of a plural signification, may admit of a verb either singular or plural ; but this is by no means arbitrary. We ought to consider whether the term will immediately suggest the idea of the number it represents, or whether it exhibit to the mind the idea of the whole, as one thing. In the former case, the verb ought to be plural, in the latter it ought to be singular. Thus it seems harsh to say with Harvey in Johnson, In France the peasantry goes barefoot, and the middle sort, through all that kingdom, makes use of wooden shoes. It would be better to say, the peasantry go bare foot and the middle sort make use &c, because the idea, in both these cases, is that of a number. But words expressing the greatest numbers may be used in a singular construction, if the ideas they convey may be conceived at once; as, a hundred pounds a great many men, &c.
On the contrary, there is an harshness in the following sentences of Hume, in which nouns of number have verbs plural, because the ideas they represent seem not to be sufficiently divided, as it were, in the mind, The court of Rome were not without solicitude. The house of commom were of small weight. The house of lords were so much infuenced by these reasons. Hume's Hiftory, vol. 8. p. 108, Stephen's party were entirely broke up by the captivity of their leader. Ib. vol. i- p. 306. An army of twentyfour thousand were assembled. One would think that naming the actual number of men, of which the army consfisted, would be sufficlent to break the idea into its proper parts ; but I think that the effect of this sentence upon the ear proves the contrary. An army, though consisting of ever so many men, is still one thing, and the verb ought to be in the singular number.

The Rudiments of English Grammar, Joseph Priestley

Lindley Murray

Lindley Murray (1745 – 1826), was an American grammarian who spent much time in Britain, and whose English grammar, adapted to the different classes of learners (1795) was enormously infliential on both sides of the Atlantic. He is often considered the (prescriptive) heir to Lowth.
RULE IV.
A noun of multitude, or signifying; many, may have a verb or pronoun agreeing with it, either of the singular or plural number; yet not without regard to the import of the word, as conveying unity or plurality of idea ; as, "The meeting was large;" "The parliament is dissolved ;" "The nation is powerful;" "My people do not consider : they have not known me ;" " The multitude eagerly pursue pleasure, as their chief good;", "The council were divided in their sentiments."

English grammar, adapted to the different classes of learners, by Lindley Murray

Murray seems to have lifted most of the next section directly from Joseph Priestley and Robert Lowth:
We ought to consider whether the term will immediately suggest the idea of the number it represents, or whether it exhibits to the mind the idea of the whole as one thing. In the former case, the verb ought to be plural ; in the latter, it ought to be singular. Thus, it seems improper to say, "The peasantry goes barefoot, and the middle sort makes use of wooden shoes." It would be better to say, "The peasantry go barefoot, and the middle sort make use," &c because the idea in both these cases, is that of a number. On the contrary, there is a harshness in the following sentences, in which nouns of number have verbs plural; because the ideas they represent seem not to be sufficiently divided in the mind, "The court of Rome were not without solicitude." "The house of commons were of small weight." "The house of lords were so much influenced by these reasons." "Stephen's party were entirely broken up by the captivity of their leader." " An army of twenty-four thousand were assembled." " What reason have the church of Rome for proceeding in this manner ?" "There is indeed no constitution so tame and careless of their own defence." "All the virtues of mankind are to be counted upon a few fingers, but his follies and vices are innumerable." Is not mankind in this place a noun of multitude, and such as requires the pronoun referring to it to be in the plural number, their?

English grammar, adapted to the different classes of learners, by Lindley Murray

William Cobbett

William Cobbett (1763 – 1835) was an English pamphleteer, farmer and journalist (Wikipedia). Amongst other things he published a grammar book, in the form of letters to his son.
244. The nominative is frequently a noun of multitude ; as, mob, parliament, gang. Now, where this is the case, the Verb is used in the singular or in the plural, upon precisely the same principles that the pronouns are so used ; and as these principles, together with ample illustrations by the way of example, have been given you in Letter XVII, paragraph 181, I need say nothing more of the matter. I will just observe, however, that consistency, in the use of the Verb, in such cases, is the main thing to keep in view. We may say, "The gang of borough-tyrants is cruel", or, "that the gang of borough-tyrants are cruel;" but if we go on to speak of their notoriously brutal ignorance, we must not say, "The gang of borough-tyrants is cruel, and are also notoriously as ignorant as brutes." We must use is in both places, or are in both places.
Earlier, Cobbett had talked about using singular or plural pronouns with collective nouns:
181. Nouns of number, or multitude, such as Mob, Parliament, Rabble, House of Commons, Regiment, Court of King's Bench, Den of Thieves, and the like, may have Pronouns agreeing with them either in the singular or in the plural number; for we may, for instance, say of the House of Commons, "They refused to hear evidence against Castlereagh when Mr. Maddox accused him of having sold a seat;" or, "It refused to hear evidence." But we must be uniform in our use of the Pronoun in this respect. We must not, in the same sentence, and applicable to the same noun, use the singular in one part of the sentence and the plural in another part. We must not, in speaking of the House of Commons, for instance, say, "They one year voted unanimously that cheap corn was an evil, and the next year it voted unanimously that dear corn was an evil." There are persons who pretend to make very nice distinctions as to the cases when these nouns of multitude ought to take the singular, and when they ought to take the plural, Pronoun ; but these distinctions are too nice to be of any real use. The rule is this: that nouns of multitude may take either the singular, or the plural, Pronoun; but not both in the same sentence.
Robert Waters, the editor of this 1901 New York edition was not at all happy with that last point of Cobbett's:
This will never do; it is far too indefinite. The pronoun standing for a noun of multitude is used in the singular if the idea of unity is to be conveyed, and in the plural if the idea of plurality is to be conveyed. Let me illustrate with some of these very nouns which Cobbett so sarcastically huddles together: "The mob now began to scatter in every direction, and they set up a hideous yell as they moved off. The mob came on in one compact body, and it did not fail to press itself through the gates of the palace. He listed the rabble, because they hated him. The rabble of New York has a language and a literature of its own. The House of Commons could not agree on any measure of Reform ; so they were dismissed by the king. The House of Commons was unanimous in condemning the obstructing Irish members, and it suspended them for two weeks. When the Court of King's Bench passed sentence on Mr. Cobbett, it refused to reconsider its decision. I have been informed that there was some difference of opinion in the Court of King's Bench concerning Mr. Cobbett's case, though they refused to reconsider their decision. Here is a den of thieves; suppress it. We came upon a den of thieves, who were so numerous that we did not venture to attack them." Thus, you see, that the singularity or plurality of the pronoun standing for a noun of multitude depends entirely upon whether an idea of unity or of plurality is to be conveyed.

A Grammar of the English Language, William Cobbett Archive.org

British textbooks and grammar books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries

The first extract is from a book by J.M.D. Meiklejohn, who was professor of the theory, history and practice of education in the University of St.Andrews.
Rule XXIX. — Collective Nouns take a singular verb or a plural verb, as the notion of unity or of plurality is uppermost in the mind of the speaker. Thus we say : "Parliament was dissolved." "The committee are divided in opinion."

The English Language: Its Grammar, History, and Literature
by JMD Meiklejohn, Edinburgh 1886
Archive.org

The second book is by William Davidson & Joseph Crosby Alcock, co-authors of more than half-a-dozen books on grammar and composition.
II. Collective common nouns denote several individuals as one object : as, herd, flock, army.
Obs. — Collective nouns sometimes convey plurality of idea, and thus refer to the individuals making up the group rather than to the group itself : as, The medical faculty have resolved to act in unison ; The public (i.e. the persons composing the public) are wavering. Such nouns are then called, by some, Nouns of Multitude.

Archive.org

(Personal pronouns) Obs. 3.— The pronoun must be singular number when it stands for a collective noun conveying unity of idea : as, The army was on its way to the scene of action. The pronoun must be plural number when it stands for a collective noun conveying plurality of idea : as, The Council are divided in their opinions.

Archive.org

(relative pronouns) Obs. 3. — A collective noun followed by a singular verb is neuter gender and requires which or that ; but when it is followed by a plural verb, it is masculine, feminine, or common gender, and requires who or that.

Archive.org

352. Rule LVII. When the nominative is a collective noun conveying unity of idea, the verb is singular ; but when it is acollective noun conveying plurality of idea, the verb is plural: as, The crowd is silent ; The crowd are excited.
Explanation. — When crowd conveys unity of idea, it requires the verb to be singular, in ; The crowd (as one body) is silent. When crowd conveys plurality of idea, it requires the verb to be plural, are excited ; The crowd (as separate persons, each of them are excited.

Archive.org

English grammar and analysis, William Davidson & Joseph Crosby Alcock, London 1889

The next book was aimed at 'boys and girls from thirteen to seventeen years of age', and written by Alfred S. West, Fellow of University College, London.
Collective nouns are also called Nouns of Multitude, and in using them we sometimes think of the individuals included in the group rather than of the group as a whole. Hence these nouns are found with either singular or plural predicates. We may say 'Parliament was unanimous,' if the thought uppermost in our minds is the assembly as a whole, but we may say 'Parliament were all sixes and sevens,' if we are thinking of the assembly as divided into different parties.

The Elements of Grammar, Alfred S West, Toronto 1907
Archive.org

This extract is from a textbook by J.C.Nesfield, who wrote several books for the publishers, Macmillans, including this one- Manual of English Grammar and Composition, English Grammar Past and Present and Historical English and Derivation. This book is quite detailed and may well have been aimed more at university students.
24. A Collective Noun is a name for a group of similar individuals, the group being one complete whole.
For instance, there may be many sheep in a field, but only one flock. Here "sheep" is a Common noun, because it may stand for any and every sheep; but "flock" is a Collective noun, because it stands for all the sheep at once, and not for any one sheep taken separately.
Note 1. — A Collective Noun may be either Common or Proper:
Thus the term "flock" may stand for many different flocks. But Parliament, the House of Commons, can stand for only one body.
Note 2. — A Noun of Multitude, since it denotes a specific group, must be classed as Collective ; but with a difference.
(a) A Collective noun denotes one undivided whole; and hence the verb following is singular:
  • The jury consists of twelve persons.
(b) A noun of Multitude denotes the individuals of the group ; and hence the verb is plural, although the noun is singular:
  • The jury (the men on the jury) were divided in their opinions.

Manual of English Grammar and Composition, J.C. Nesfield, London 1908
Archive.org

And this is from 'a course of English Grammar for schools' by John D. Rose, Rector of the Kirkcaldy High School
A Collective Noun (or Noun of Multitude) is a name that belongs to a group of individuals, but not to any single individual in that group — e.g. army, police, club, mob, flock.
Collective Nouns generally have a Singular Verb, but when you think more of the individuals in the group than of the group as a single whole the verb may be plural — e.g.
  • The mob assembles
  • but
  • The mob throw stones.

John D. Rose - Advanced English Grammar through Composition, London 1917 Archive.org

Sir Lancelot Oliphant, author of 20th century textbooks

Oliphant was a diplomat and the author of several grammar books for British schools:
  • A General Certificate English Course (1928)
  • An English Matriculation Course (1930)
  • A Short Course in English Grammar (1936)
  • English in Action (Discussions on English Grammar) (1946)
  • English Observed, Common Errors in Written English (1955)
I've no idea how widespread the use of his books was, but the fact that first one was still being reprinted in 1966, and that one of them sits on the shelves of Neville Gwynne suggests that his books were quite well-known at the time. In English Observed, he has one question related to collective nouns where he allows either a singular or plural verb:
The frenzied mob was now seen at their worst.
(A collective noun in the singular may be followed by a verb in the singular or the plural, according as we regard a thing as an undivided whole or as consisting of individuals that compose the whole. But the noun cannot be treated as both singular and plural at the same time. Write, ‘The frenzied mob was now seen at its worst’; or, ‘The frenzied mob were now seen at their worst’.)

English Observed, Common Errors in Written English, Lancelot Oliphant

He doesn't allow notional agreement, however, with an assortment of - I wonder what he would have said about a number of, where a plural verb is often seen as more natural:
A curious assortment of goods were to be seen in the shop.
(When a plural noun depends on a preceding singular noun, the verb is sometimes wrongly made to agree with the plural noun next to it. In the sentence given, assortment, a noun in the singular, is the real subject of the verb, and this verb should therefore be in the singular also. Write, ‘A curious assortment of goods was to be seen in the shop’.)

English Observed, Common Errors in Written English, Lancelot Oliphant

Rather like Fowler before him, Oliphant seems to have been a strange mixture of prescriptivist and descriptivist. In a section called 'Words commonly misused' as well as the usual suspects like literally and decimate, he lists the following - the comments after each are from Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO):
  • aggravating - shouldn't be to mean annoying, only to make heavier or worse
    ODO list the annoying meaning as informal but point out that it dates back to the 17th century 'and has been so used by respected writers ever since', although disliked by traditionalists.
  • awfully - shouldn't be used to mean very - awful means ‘inspiring fear or reverence’
    ODO list Oliphant's preferred meaning of awful as archaic.
  • demean - doesn't mean lower or debase yourself - it simply means conduct yourself
    ODO gives the debase meaning and makes no mention of Oliphant's definition
  • nice - means ‘fastidious’, ‘delicate’, ‘refined’, and should not be used indiscriminately to mean ‘pleasant’, ‘agreeable’, or ‘beautiful’.
    ODO list Oliphant's preferred definitions as archaic
  • practically - shouldn't be used to mean almost (although it's OK in conversation). His definition is more like 'in practice'
    ODO list almost as its main meaning, and also in a practical manner, but not in practice
I certainly remember being taught something similar about nice at school. Now a lot of this can just be put down to the fact meanings can change, and I can forgive him eveything because of this next passage, with which he apparently ended A General Certificate English Course:
Lastly think for yourself. For suprisingly few people do think for themselves, especially young people. They find it easier to take their opinions secondhand, and to follow blindly where others lead. We therefore say again: Think for yourself. And, what is more, do not be overawed by "authority". There are no sacrosanct fixed rules in English which you are bound to obey. Nevertheless, in this book we shall frequently speak of rules, for there are certain provisional rules which, as a comparative beginner, you will do well to respect, but that is no reason why you should submissively accept them for the rest of your life. When, however, you do break a rule let there be some good reason for breaking it. You will be judged by the result.

A General Certificate English Course, Lancelot Oliphant, OUP 1928

American grammars

What surprised me is that there is really no difference between British and American Grammarians on this issue; the difference between us seems to be entirely one of usage. But because many American only hear and see collective nouns being used with singular verbs, they not unnaturally think it is a golden rule.
Famous for his dictionary, Noah Webster also wrote about grammar. This is from A Grammatical Institute of the English Language
Rule 3,
Nouns of multitude, though they are in the singular number, may have a verb and pronoun agreeing with them either in the singular or plural.
EXAMPLES
The assembly is or are very numerous ; they are much divided. "My people is or are foolish ; they have not known me. The company was or were noisy.
EXPLANATION Assembly is a noun of multitude, and may be united with is in the singular, or with are in the plural number. The same is observable of people and company.
We should have strict regard to the meaning of these collective nouns, in determining whether the singular or plural number is most proper to be joined with them. And if the indefinite article a or an precedes the noun, the verb must be singular ; as, "a company was &c"

A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part II, Noah Webster Archive

The next extract is from a book by Noah Webster’s son-in-law, William Chauncey Fowler, who was a professor, clergyman and legislator.
509. Rule XXVII. — When a verb has for its subject a Collective noun, it can agree with it either in the Singular or the Plural number; as, "The council is or are unanimous;" "The company was or were collected;" "A part of the exports consists or consist of raw silk."
Note I. — When the collective noun indicates unity, a Singular verb should be used; when it indicates plurality, a Plural verb should be used. In general, modern practice inclines to the use of a plural verb, especially when persons and not things are signified by the collective noun ; as, "The clergy began to withdraw themselves from the temporal courts." — Blackstone. "The chorus prepare resistance at his first approach; the chorus sings of the battle." — Johnson's Life of Milton.
Note II. — The most common mistakes in the application of this rule occur in the use of sort and kind, with a plural pronoun ; as, "These sort are good;" "those kind are bad;" for this sort, that kind.
When a collective noun is preceded by a definitive which clearly limits the sense of the word to the idea of unity, it requires a verb and a pronoun to agree with it in the singular number ; as, "A company of troops was raised ;" "This people has become a great nation."

English grammar the English language in its elements and forms, with a history of its origin and development, designed for use in colleges and schools, William Chauncey Fowler, New York 1876 Archive

William Malone Baskervill (1850–1899) was a writer and professor of the English language and literature at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. James Witt Sewell (1865–1955) was a writer and professor of the English language at the Hume-Fogg High School, also in Nashville. (Wikipedia)
440 (2) The singular form of the verb is used ... when the subject is a collective noun which represents a number of persons or things taken as one unit; as,—
  • The larger breed [of camels] is capable of transporting a weight of a thousand pounds.—Gibbon.
  • Another school professes entirely opposite principles.—The Nation.
  • A number of jeweled paternosters was attached to her girdle.—Froude.
This usage, like some others in this series, depends mostly on the writer's own judgment. Another writer might, for example, prefer a plural verb after number in Froude's sentence above.
(2) The plural form of the verb is used... when the subject is a collective noun in which the individuals of the collection are thought of; as,—
  • A multitude go mad about it.—Emerson.
  • A great number of people were collected at a vendue.—Franklin.
  • All our household are at rest.—Coleridge.

An English Grammar for the Use of High School, Academy and College Classes, W.M.Baskerville and J.W.Sewell, 1895

A couple of modern American usage guides

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage

Collective nouns ... have had the characteristic of being used with both singular and plural verbs since Middle English. The principle involved - referred to elsewhere in this book as notional agreement - is simple: when the group is considered as a unit, the singular verb is used; when it is thought of as a collection of individuals, the plural verb is used. All grammarians and usage commentators agree on the basic sentence.
Those commentators who mention British-American differences agree in general that singular verbs are more common in American English and plural verbs more common in British English. Beyond this generality it can be unsafe to venture; where notional agreement operates, there are no absolutes.
The difference between British and American English usage may be illustrated by the word 'family'. ".
And from various studies they draw several conclusions, including:
  • Plural forms are more common in BrE, although there is a little bit of resistance to things like 'his family are'.
  • In BrE plural forms are used more often in speaking than in writing.
  • While in American English the singular is more common, plurals are not unknown, and they quote from Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, from Time Magazine and form Erich Segal writing in the NYT.

Garner's Modern American English

Apart from the desire for consistency, there is little "right" or "wrong" on this subject: collective nouns sometimes take a singular verb and sometimes a plural one. The trend in AmE is to regard the collective noun as expressing a unit: hence the singular is the usual form.
Just the opposite habit generally obtains in BrE, where collective nouns tend to take plural verbs.
Interestingly, Garner then suggests that in the early days after the revolution, American usage was closer to current British practice, but that has diverged since. He finishes:
You can't be doctrinaire on this point of usage ... These are questions more of local idiom than of correct or incorrect grammar.

Garner's Modern American Usage - Google Books

Nineteenth-century examples of plural verbs with team names

Some people think this is a particularly recent phenomenon, but plural verbs seem to have been used wirth team names ever since teams started appearing in the nineteenth century. This seems to have been particularly the case with cricket. These are all from Google Books and are easily checkable.
  • Sussex were put in the last innings for forty-eight runs.
    Sporting Magazine 1828
  • Whilst we are writing Kent are playing Sussex their return match at Tunbridge Wells.
    Baily's Magazine 1860
  • and in 1862 Eton were declared the victors late on the afternoon of Saturday.
    The Saturday Review 1865
  • and before the clock struck 6, the M.C.C. were all out for 112.
    John Wisden's Cricket Almanack 1870
  • When Cambridge were out for 134 there was much shaking of heads.
    Baily's Magazine 1877
  • In the cricket match between Oxford and Cambridge, the former were beaten by two hundred and eixty-six runs.
    The Liberal and the New Dispensation 1893
  • The Australian team have defeated the Derby eleven by an innings and seventy-one runs.
    Ibid 1893
  • Is it that Sheffield United are really so good as their League position indicates?
    The Sketch 1895
  • The Rugby 'Varsity battle is over, and Cambridge are the winners.
    The Sketch 1895
  • Yorkshire are so sure of winning the championship that ... .
    The Truth 1895
  • Scotland are playing two distinct teams against Wales and Ireland.
    Baily's Magazine 1896
  • when the match ended Harrow were by no means in a bad position.
    Cricket, a Weekly Record 1896
  • In this match Gloucestershire were quite outplayed.
    Cricket, a Weekly Record 1896
  • Cardiff are, perhaps, the best team in the principality.
    Country Life Illustrated 1897
  • Surrey are again showing themselves to be somewhat of a fair weather team.
    Country Life Illustrated 1897
  • Sheffield United are still at the top of the tree in the League matches.
    Truth 1897
  • Yorkshire were again beaten by 140 runs. The North of England were beaten by 42 runs at Manchester. Hampshire were defeated by an innings and 25 runs.
    Whitaker's Almanack 1897
  • Bristol are running Southampton a close race for the championship.
    Baily's Magazine 1897
  • Since 1890 Oxford have won nine races in succession.
    Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes 1898
  • South Australia were dismissed in their second venture for 32.
    The Ludgate Illustrated Magazine 1898

Charles Dickens

Dickens (1812 - 1870), often considered the geatest of Victorian novelists (Wikipedia), didn't seem averse to using the occasional plural verb with collective nouns.
As a fiddle and tambourine band were sitting among the company, Quickear suggested why not strike up?

The Uncommercial Traveller

The band were seated opposite us

Adelaide Anne Procter, in The Atlantic Monthly 1881

The Committee were embellished also ; and when they entered the ladies' ordinary in a body, there was much clapping of hands from ladies and gentlemen

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit

The family were delighted. Splendid view of the sea from the front windows — charming ! A short pause. Back came Mrs. Tuggs again. — One parlour, and a mattress. " Why the devil didn't they say so at first ?" inquired Mr. Joseph Tuggs, ...

The Tuggs's at Ramsgate

A certain Mrs. Tickit, who was Cook and Housekeeper when the family were at home, and Housekeeper only when the family were away, completed the establishment.

Little Dorritt

to inspect the furniture and fittingsup of the house, which the young couple were to tenant, after the Christmas holidays

The Pickwick Papers

But, the happy couple were not going to part with him in that way, and before he had been on board two minutes, there they were, looking down at him from the wharf above

Our Mutual Friend

repeated everybody, as that unhappy pair were discovered

Sketches by Boz

However, Bella compensating for all drawbacks by responding to the advances of the Boffins in an engaging way, that easy pair were on the whole well satisfied

Our Mutual Friend

The audience were highly amused, Mrs. Porter delighted, the performers embarrassed

Sketches by Boz

By this time the audience were perfectly silent, and waited with some anxiety for the resumption of business.

The Pickwick Papers

The office-door was closed after them, and the crowd were on the tiptoe of expectation.

Sketches by Boz

and the crowd were busy, too, in passing them from thence along the street

Barnaby Rudge

and the band was playing, and the constables were swearing, and the twenty committee-men were squabbling, and the mob were shouting

Pickwick Papers

before the ricks were blazing and the mob were mad

Martin Chuzzlewit

Be this as it may, the boys were recalled from house-window, garden, stable, and cow-yard, and the school were assembled in full conclave, when Mr Squeers, with a small bundle of papers in his hand, and Mrs S. following ...

Nicholas Nickleby

The eighteenth century

the family were

and the Nobleman's Family were witnesses that the cure was effected at that very time

The reasonableness and certainty of the Christian religion, Robert Jenkin - 1708

This Family were also pretty even with the Bruces, for extirpating them in Scotland

A journey through England, John Macky - 1722

that the Ormonde family were the heirs of Thomas Becket

A History of the Life of James Duke of Ormonde, Thomas Carte - 1736

This family were long seated at Willoughby, in the county of Warwick

The English Baronetage - 1741

The family were so overjoyed that they arose and welcomed their old guest

The Scots Magazine 1795

the band were

upon this the Train'd Bands were order'd into St. George's Fields

The History of the Puritans, Daniel Neal 1733

This Honourable Band (the Band of Gentlemen-Pensioners) were first instituted by King Henry the Seventh

The true state of England, 1734

The harmless band were seiz'd with sudden fright

Hoole's translation of Tasso, The Critical Review 1763

It was one o'clock in the morning of the 13th of September when the little band were crowded into boats

Charles Knight's Popular History of England, 1783

The band were all in scarlet uniforms, and were 16 in number

The Scots Magazine 1787

the committee were

Upon this Evidence the Committee were of Opinion, That ...

A Complete Collection of State-trials, Thomas Salmon, Sollom Emlyn 1730

My Lords, The Committee were well aware, that great Objections would be made to this Kind of Evidence

The history and proceedings of the House of Commons, 1742

The Committee were not a little surprised to find, that so short a speech, made, too, in the presence of so many perfons, some of whom were employed, whilst Mr. Twining was sfpeaking, in taking it down, should be so inaccurately written

A Narrative of the Conduct of the Tea-dealers 1785

The Speaker answered, that the Committee were, as he The Speaker apprehended, competent to come to any resolutions they thought proper

The parliamentary register, 1787

The following Committee were appointed to try the merits of Horne Tooke's petition

The Scots Magazine 1791

the audience were

The Audience were very much provoked by the first words of this speech

The works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, 1721

It is reported of Æschylus, that when his tragedy of the Furies was acted, the audience were so terrify'd that the children fell into fits

A note to The Dunciad, translated by Alexander Pope - 1735

and Paul perceiving that the audience were partly Sadduces and partly Pharisees, ...

The posthumous works of Mr. Thomas Chubb- 1748

and his audience were always given to understand, by way of application, ...

The Critical Review - 1763

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for him, the audience were of a different opinion

The European magazine, and London review, Philological Society (Great Britain) - 1799

the crowd were

and the whole Crowd were filled with a deep Consternation and Murmurs

Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia ('modernised' version) 1725

0thers say that whilst the crowd were kept at a distance by some Centurions, ...

The Lives of the Twelve First Roman Emperors, translated by John Clarke - 1732

A great crowd were gotten together upon the shore; amongst whom was Otoo their king

A Voyage towards the South Pole and round the world, James Cook, Tobias Furneaux - 1784

it was not until the dusk of the evening that the busy crowd were persuaded of the approach of a thaw

The New Annual Register, Andrew Kippis - 1790

At this judgment from the mouth of a bird, the crowd were filled with astonishment

Bahar-danush, translated by Jonathan Scott, 1799

the mob were

That the Force put on the Government by the Rabble, was an Invasion of the Publick Peace $ and that the Mob were the Aggressors

A collection of original papers, collected by Daniel Defoe - 1709

Did he run and hide himself, as many would have done upon finding that the Mob were Masters of the Town?

The London Magazine and Monthly Chronologer - 1737

He was called to Lincoln's Inn Fields Chapel on the Sunday evening, where the, mob were demolishing the remains of the chapel

The Gentleman's Magazine - 1781

Listening only to the voice of gratitude, he flew to the unfortunate Major, whom the enraged mob were dragging along, with a fury that would have intimidated the sloutest heart

Walker's Hibernian Magazine - 1790

At this time, the mob were no otherwise mischievous than in refusing to depart

The Gentleman's Magazine - 1794

the company were

The Tobacco-Pipe-Makers Company were incorporated by Charter

A survey of the cities of London and Westminster, John Stow, John Mottley - 1735

the old Company were oblig'd to take in additional Subscriptions to the Amount of 744,000 L

The History of England, During the Reigns of K. William, Q. Anne, James Ralph - 1746

The disputes raised upon that head, and other political affairs of great importance, so occupied their attention, that the company were not able to gain their great point

The Modern Part of an Universal History - 1759

The company were saluted by the militia band of music as they landed at the door

Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Review - 1783

The company were prohibited from sending out a greater number of cadets or writers than what were absolutely necessary

An Historical and Chronological Déduction of the Origin of Commerce, edited by Adam Anderson, Combe - 1789

Assorted 17th and 18th century examples

Families and couples

  • Then the young Couple are set at Table" - Adam Olearius and others - 1669
  • then all the Family are like to be crushed with the same ruine - Jeremy Taylor - 1673
  • The couple are usually prevented from marrying earlier by one or several reasons - Hubert McDermott - 1693
  • every time the Family are call'd together to Prayers - Thomas Bray - 1697
  • In the mean while the Young Couple are lead to a Room with a fine Bed in it ; where they are shut in, and left to their liberty, - Christoph Frick - 1700

Companies in legal cases

  • That this House will hear the Cause wherein the East India Company are Appellants - House of Lords - 1691
  • The preamble also observes that the East-India Company are possessed of and entitled to the Capital Stock of ... - Alexander Dalrymple, 1772
  • Moreover, the Bank of England are liable to have Cash demanded of them - House of Lords, 1796
  • Cause wherein Richard Hotchkis is Appellant, and the Royal Bank of Scotland are Respondents - House of Lords 1796

Some final thoughts

I had expected that perhaps prescriptive grammarians might have been against this usage of plural verbs with collective nouns. Not a bit of it; what concerned them most was the consistent agreement of pronouns.
The same goes for American grammarians. I was surprised that the difference between British and American English is entirely in usage. The writers of grammar and usage books on both sides of the Atlantic are broadly in agreement.
I don't think we Brits use plural verbs equally with all types of collective noun. We use them especially with team names and the names of bands, with political parties, and with the words family, couple, and pair. It seems that for the rest, the media prefer to use singular forms, although in the case of companies etc, the public, and the companies themselves, often seem to prefer to use a plural.
It seems to me that the use of plural verbs also increases when words like whole or all are added. This also happens with expressions with of. These graphs also seem to suggest, that with family, at any rate, movement (in books) seems to be away from using plural verbs. But I'm not convinced that this is the case in spoken and informal written language.

'The government are'

Government is one of the words often quoted as taking a plural verb, and Wikipedia even suggest that the plural verb is always used with government by the British Civil Service, perhaps to emphasise collective responsibility. But examples with plural verbs are quite difficult to find. Mark Liberman addresses this point in an article at Language Log linked to below. However, he is checking only Hansard, the parliamentary record, where he reckons singular verbs outnumber plural ones by about two to one. In conversation, I think the use of the plural would be rather higher.

Links

General principles

Fowler, Gowers and Partridge

Style guides

Blogs, discussions etc

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