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A Word, Please: The British and the American ways

July 29, 2011|By June Casagrande

I don’t follow sports. Not firsthand, anyway.

I know that when I hear curses coming from my living room, the Red Sox are doing badly, and that a “woo” or “woo-hoo” indicates the opposite. I also know that hunger pangs can be a symptom of a condition called “extra innings,” and that, contrary to all logic, the Papelbon is not a highway in Germany.

But usually I pay no attention to sports at all. That’s probably why I was so surprised some weeks ago to notice a headline that flashed at me from an online news site. The headline read “Mexico take Gold Cup.”


For the first time, a sports headline had my attention. But it wasn’t the sports part that got me. Nor was it the rather salient question of why anyone in today’s commodities market would make a cup out of gold. What interested me was the verb. Take? Mexico take? Why wasn’t it Mexico takes?

The answer, it turns out, isn’t so straightforward.

Subjects are supposed to agree with verbs. A singular subject like “country” goes with a verb conjugated in the singular like “is.” A plural subject like “countries” takes a verb conjugated in the plural, like “are.” A country is. Countries are. Piece of cake.

Mexico, being singular, seems to naturally go with a singular verb. Mexico is a warm country. Mexico is south of the United States. Mexico has beautiful beaches.

So the only reason you’d put Mexico with a plural verb is if you’re using it as a plural. Mexico are contenders for the gold. But can you do that? Just reinterpret an otherwise singular verb as a plural?

Well, there are a couple factors to consider. The first is whether you mean the subject as a single unit or as a collective. For example, notice the verbs in “His politics are extreme because politics is a difficult profession.”

Both these interpretations of “politics” are correct. Sometimes it’s meant as a single thing — a profession. Sometimes it’s meant as a collective of opinions or ideas. So sometimes it could take a singular verb, other times a plural.

Can you extend this to sports? Well, people in the U.K. often do. “The British — oddly to American eyes and ears — consider organizations, especially sports teams, plural,” according to “Garner’s Modern American Usage.”

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