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Not too long ago, an ELL user posted a question on Meta Stack Exchange (MSE). Unfortunately, it was wildly off-topic as it was clearly an English language question and soon after the author chose to delete their post. However, I couldn't help but feel curious when I read the OP's post.

The extract was taken from The New York Times's article, dated February 14, 2020. The words in bold are mine:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the other hand, has instructed health care providers to use N95s, which block out much smaller particles than surgical masks do.

The user wanted to know why the verb was singular ("has") when the subject appears to be plural "The Centers", and frankly, I am a little stumped too. I would have written "have instructed" because "Centers" suggest that there is more than one.

All three reporters: Chris Buckley, Sui-Lee Wee and Amy Qin, are correspondents for the NYT, so I was wondering if this was the case of L1 (first language transfer) or an L2 back to L1. Or is it just a typo…but on The New York Times? It is renowned for being a stickler for grammar, and despite the two weeks since its publication, the "mistake" has not been fixed.

After all it seems like a typical Subject Verb Agreement error, doesn't it?

  • It is viewed a a single government agency. What is annoying, however, is the way they skip the definite article, just like the CIA. – Lambie Feb 29 at 19:47
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    Lol, disagreement indeed. – Laurel Feb 29 at 20:17
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    Many people refer to it as “the CDC”, but CDC refers to itself without the article. cdc.gov/about/default.htm I think the acronym being used so much has caused people to think it is “center” instead of “centers” and that leads to problems. AmE would refer to the agency as singular and BrE would use plural, which causes further problems. – ColleenV Apr 28 at 11:20
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While the name Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reflects that it comprises multiple research institutes, it is usually conceived of as a single entity. If the CDC makes a recommendation, "we" think of one body making it, not the directors of a dozen different labs coming together on it; its short form is the CDC and not the Centers or some such. As such, we may "tune out" that the name is plural in form.

In grammatical terms this is an example of notional concord (also known as notional agreement). Even though the subject is plural in form, one thinks of it as singular, and so takes a singular verb (vice versa with a singular noun thought of as plural). In literary circles this is known as synesis.

The vast majority of Americans (myself included) have no idea how many centers for disease control and prevention there are, and could not name a single one, and so perhaps it is natural to think of the well-known and well-respected "brand" of the umbrella organization, but familiarity is not the only or governing principle. After all, there are fifty states in America united under a federal government, and since the end of Reconstruction, it is rather more common to write of it as a whole than as a collection of its constituent states:

Google Ngram showing divergence of 'United States' with singular and plural agreement

Thus, The United Nations is, The Estee Lauder Companies is, The National Institutes of Health is, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America is, The Veterans of Foreign Wars is, and so on and so forth. For another example, singular nouns indicating collections may sound more natural taking plural verbs: a lot of geese are honking, a group of students are protesting; a group of students is protesting is valid, but connotes an organized group, while a lot of geese is honking is not acceptable in standard English.

By the same token, though, not every single entity with a plural name gets that treatment. In American English, for example, sports teams with plural names are invariably plural: Texas Instruments is in the S&P 500, but The Texas Rangers are in the American League West.

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