Warning: I’m about to get all “nerdy writer” on you.
There’s a trend that I’ve noticed over the past several years that has been driving me steadily more insane. It is a major pet peeve of mine, but I haven’t been able to properly deconstruct (and thus discredit) it until literally just this morning.
The trend is this: using a plural verb to describe the actions of a single entity, ostensibly because that single entity is comprised of several different people.
Here’s an example: “Microsoft have announced the XBox One.”
GOD. I can barely even type those words without feeling like I’m chewing tinfoil. Microsoft is a single entity. It is a company. If the sentence read, “The good people at Microsoft have announced the XBox One,” that would read correctly. But “Microsoft,” by itself, doesn’t imply “the people of Microsoft.” It implies “the company called Microsoft.” And that is singular. The correct verb is “has,” as in, “Microsoft has announced the XBox One.”
This trend seems to be most prominent, for reasons I can’t comprehend, on gaming news sites. For some reason, the editors and commenters on those sites have gotten it into their head that “Microsoft” is a plural noun and needs matching plural verbs. I don’t see this happening in the greater news world – not on HuffPo, CNN, or other mainstream news sites; not even on other non-game technical sites, like Ars Technica. It only seems to happen on gaming news sites, and typically only the smaller name ones.
It drives me absolutely nuts, but for years I wasn’t able to pinpoint why it was wrong. When I tried to figure it out, the mental process went something like this:
“Okay, I get it. Microsoft is a single entity, but it’s made of thousands of different people. But still, it’s a single entity. Not every single person involved in Microsoft made the announcement. Unless you’re going to call out the specific people who actually made the announcement, you should say, ‘Microsoft has announced their new console.'”
Wait a minute… their new console?
And that’s where I’d stumble to a halt, every time, suddenly confronted with the horrible truth: my natural inclination is to use a plural pronoun (“they”) when talking about a single entity (Microsoft).
This would drive me nuts. In trying to mentally rebut the validity of this trend, I would always end up reinforcing it with that “they.” Maybe they’re right, some unhinged, terrified thing in my mind would whisper. Maybe they’re revolutionaries. Maybe they alone know the truth the rest of us have been too blind to see all this time. Maybe this is a natural evolution of the language and I need to embrace it or be left behind.
Periodically, through the years, I would repeat this exercise, but I would inevitably end up recoiling from it and sobbing in the corner, a shivering wreck of a man.
No longer, my friends. No longer. This morning I stopped being afraid of the “they,” and here’s why.
In short, “they” doesn’t really belong there, but the issue is that, in English, there is no good pronoun to put there. This isn’t a “singular vs plural” issue – it’s a gender word issue. English doesn’t have a good, gender-appropriate (in this case, gender-neutral) pronoun for this situation.
To explain what I mean, I’m going to back up and come at this from a different angle.
Say the phone rings and you miss the call. Caller ID reads, “Unavailable.” It would not be uncommon to say, “Someone called me; I wonder who it was.” It would also not be uncommon to say, “Someone called me; I wonder who they were.”
You don’t know who called, so you don’t know the caller’s gender. You need to refer to them in a gender-neutral manner, but English is extremely limited in its options for doing so. You basically have “it,” which is a rather dehumanizing way to refer to another human being, and you have “they,” which is more warm and human, but an incorrect reference from a singular/plural perspective.
Of course, someone who says, “I wonder who they were,” doesn’t really believe that it was a group of people that called them. Just like if they say, “I wonder who it was,” they’re not implying that they believe they were called by a robot (though, these days, you can never be sure).
(Take a quick break to re-read that last paragraph. I used the word “they” to refer to a single, hypothetical individual of undetermined gender several times, and it probably didn’t trip you up.)
Now, the use of “they” in this way is not strictly correct. The truth is English has no perfect pronoun for this situation. Different people say different things, but obviously I tend to say “they,” and I’m guessing a number of the people who are using mismatched plural verbs tend to say the same thing. After all, when you’re referring to a company, you’re referring to a gender-neutral entity. Your options for pronoun are “it” and “they.” I would argue “it” is more appropriate when you’re talking about Microsoft than it was when you’re talking about a mystery caller, but a lot of us are so used to using “they” that it just comes out. Not to mention that companies are working very hard these days to present themselves as human beings, so it’s a paradigm that’s becoming steadily more ingrained. For some people it feels wrong to refer to a company as “it.”
So. My suspicion is that this use of the plural “they” drove this line of thought in the first place. It probably went something like this:
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute. When I refer to Microsoft, I use the plural ‘they.’ Of course I do! Microsoft is made of many different individuals. Microsoft is… no. No. Microsoft are actually multiple things! Everyone in the entire history of the English language is wrong! I alone have discovered the truth! ‘Microsoft’ are a plural noun, and I should use plural verbs to describe their actions!”
*Grand, choral music swells*
*Speaker of above paragraph ascends to a new level of enlightened grammar consciousness*
Ahem. Sorry, my disdain is shining through.
The point is, using either “they” or “it” is a necessary evil brought on by the failure of the English language to have a warm, human, gender-neutral singular pronoun. If you choose “they,” you’re using the wrong word. If you choose “it,” you’re using the wrong word. You have no choice but to use the wrong word. This sucks. It’s a failing of the language.
But don’t make the problem a million times worse by then insisting that “Microsoft” is a plural noun.