Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
I learned in school, and from journalism stylebooks, that when…
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
I learned in school, and from journalism stylebooks, that when referring to an entity consisting of more than one person (e.g., "company," "team," "couple"), one should use the singular (e.g., "the team played three games and it did well"). Properly, the writer or speaker is referring to the organization, not the members of the organization, and it only confuses to use the plural (e.g., "the company's president resigned because they're in bad shape financially").
But sometimes it makes about as much or more sense to refer to the members of the organization, and not the group itself (e.g., "the company's president resigned because they're insane and she wouldn't drink the Kool-Aid"). And, as Leonard noted, the British seem to take the pluralist view (e.g., "The BBC present My Word!").
[Yes, I know, that's a lot of "e.g."s. Just so it's worth it, Merriam-Webster tells me that "e.g." comes from the Latin for exempli gratia ("for example"), and that "i.e." is the short form of the Latin id est ("that is"). Remember, don't confuse them, and use two periods.]
In any case, I should hope, writers especially should take care to use the chosen number consistently, either singular or plural. But Pete Carey's San Jose Mercury News debunking of the Cisco Systems creation myth strains the grammar-checker's patience on this matter:
Founding legends are a specialty of Silicon Valley, and none is more appealing than that of Cisco Systems: In the 1980s a young Stanford University couple invent the multiprotocol router and starts Cisco in their living room, using their own credit cards for financing.
I remember when my Russian grammar teacher in St. Petersburg suggested that I was inventing a new case. Perhaps Pete Carey is inventing a new grammatical number.
Update, Sept 2003: Pete Carey has written me and tells me that this is the original:
...legends are a specialty of Silicon Valley, and none is more appealing than that of Cisco Systems: In the 1980s a young Stanford University couple invent the multiprotocol router and start [emphasis Sumana's] Cisco in their living room, using their own credit cards for financing.
Dude, all I know is what I copied-and-pasted, but Mr. Carey says the archives bear him out. Okay.