Friday, April 20, 2007

The company are using teh PDF

Nothing is worse than a clueless author who thinks he knows grammar. In this sentence:

"Swire made a commitment to adopt PDF as their preferred format"

I changed "their" to "its". This is routine stuff, because a/ the house style of my publisher is to use the singular for companies and the like and b/ it's the most common usage by far.

But the author was outraged. He said:

Their is grammatically correct but frowned on by purists because it can not be translated directly in Latin


Leaving aside that you learn that "cannot" is one word in third grade, what can we say about this nonsense?

"Their is grammatically correct"

"Their" is grammatically correct if you consider that companies are plural in person and incorrect if you don't. Given that my publisher doesn't, and I don't, it's simply not. Why don't we? Because a company is a single thing. That's pretty simple. There are times when single things that are collections of other things are considered as collections of things rather than composites, and then one uses the plural. "The staff each receive a lollipop" is an example. "The crowd left their seats one by one" is another. (The latter can also take the singular.) An exception for me is football teams, which by convention take the plural. I note though that if I was editing a book on football for this publisher, football teams would take the singular, because the convention is different in Australia.

But can't "Swire" be taken to be the collection of people within it? I challenge you to find an example in which that reading would make more sense than the single-thing one. Go on. Give it a go.

"but frowned on by purists because it can not be translated directly in Latin"

What teh eff? This comment left me dumbfounded, and that doesn't often happen. Which bit can't be translated into Latin? "Its"? I think you'll find it can. Does he mean that Latin is stricter in agreeing for number, and that insisting on those fuddyduddy Latiny rules is cramping his style, man?

Well, who knows? I can't think of anything in Latin that would have much bearing on this kind of construction. We use the singular with companies because they are unitary. "I sent it to Swire" does mean "I sent it to somebody who works for Swire" because ultimately there is someone at Swire who opens the mail, or picks it up or whatever, but I think that arguing that Swire is a metonym for all its employees is perverse here. (Cf "Washington", in which the name of the capital is a metonym for the government of the United States; in Australia, these metonyms strictly take the singular, whereas they sometimes take the plural in the UK: "Washington has taken the hard line with Teheran/Washington have taken the hard line with Teheran". The latter is slightly awkward for me, but possible.) I think it should be compared with "the United Kingdom" or "Australia". These are single entities that have constituents, but are always considered as composites. Conceptually, the difference is easy. A crowd is coextensive with its constituents. If I say "crowd", I mean all the people in the crowd. (If I say "Arsenal", I can be taken to mean "all the players of Arsenal" or similar, I suppose.) But the UK is not coextensive with its citizens. It is something that contains its population. A crowd cannot be considered separately from the people in it; it just is those people (and note that one does not write "they" in that sentence!).

Have I captured the difference correctly? Can you analyse it differently? Answers on a postcard. Or in the comments.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Sal said...

This sort of thing always boggles me. The company ... The committee ... I try to avoid the phraseology because 50% of my readers ain't gonna be happy.

re Their is grammatically correct but frowned on by purists because it can not be translated directly in Latin

I think your guy is saying you are a purist and want to use "its" instead of "their" because "their" cannot be translated directly into Latin.

Me myself? I mush the words around so I don't have to deal with "the committee"

"A committee of Australian MPs have suggested that Australia and New Zealand ..."
committee have

"The Committee was a San Francisco based improvisational comedy group formed in 1963."
committee was

Yeah. I know. There are rules. The rules mostly, though, that deal with plural-entities-that-might-be-dealt-with-as-singletons are all house rules.

However you slice it, you are still gonna get the occasional stinker saying your are a grammatical purist.

Oh, well!

Carry on.

April 20, 2007 at 4:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I have noted before, Sal, Wikipedia is a pisspoor source and should not be relied on. I'll help you though to resolve your confusion.

Simply *never* use the plural with committees, companies or any other composite bodies (particularly if they can or could be described by name; so Coca-Cola is, the Steering Committee is). This is a rule of usage. It would be the house style at any decent publisher. (They don't put it that way but I'm trying to provide you with an easy heuristic.)

If you did that, you would never be wrong. Even "the Broncos wins the Superbowl" is not wrong in American English (or Australian English).

Sentences such as "the crowd gets its coat/coats" are happier as "the crowd get their coats" but it isn't wrong to write the former.

April 20, 2007 at 4:29 PM  
Anonymous high-in-the-sky said...

I can sense that you relish your work, Dr. The things we do for money, eh?

April 20, 2007 at 5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh shut up you anal cunt,snigger>

April 22, 2007 at 12:24 PM  
Anonymous high-in-the-sky said...

Hello Grant

April 23, 2007 at 12:31 AM  

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