“The stats prove it: England are favourites to win the World Cup!” So proclaimed today’s headline from Wired. But is “England are” correct English usage?
In this instance, England is being used as a collective noun (i.e. the name of a team). And in British English we use plural verbs with collective nouns: it’s one of the many ways we differ from American English. And we treat both band names and national sports teams (eg. Radiohead, England, Croatia) as collective nouns. An earlier Glossophilia post (“Oliver’s army is on its way“) explains it in more detail:
Unlike Americans, who tend to use verbs only in the singular form when the subject is a collective noun (“the crowd is screaming loudly”), Brits use collective nouns followed by either singular or plural verb forms, depending on the context. It’s a matter of emphasis and importance: whether the group is acting as a whole or whether the group’s individual members are important to the meaning of the sentence determines how it is formed. “The student class are causing unease in the school, given the range of learning differences amongst the scholars,” versus, “the student class is the most successful in the school’s history”. However, as a rule*, in both England and America, national sports teams are always treated as a plural noun: “England are beating all the odds and scoring their way to victory.”
Whether England are destined for victory or not, England is holding its collective breath this evening …