"The airline industry is not happy with the government's decision, it says/they say $20 billion is not enough"

I know the industry is singular but is it ok to use "they" since it's a group of companies?

  • We even often use "they" to refer to a single person. – The Photon Feb 2 at 16:46

In American English, the textbook correct answer is that you should use the singular. "The industry" is singular, therefore "it says", etc.

I'm told that in British English it is common to use plurals to refer back to such collective nouns. The classic example is "committee". In American English we say, "The committee ... it ...". But I understand that in Britain they say, "The committee ... they ...". I'll yield on this to a British person who can speak more authoritatively.

In any case, it's fairly common in American English to refer to such collectives in the plural. The textbooks say it's wrong and English teachers say it's wrong, but lots of people do it. No one's going to fault you for using the singular, and some will fault you for using the plural, so I think the safe thing to do is use singular.

  • I think there would have to be some contexts where even Americans couldn't stomach this slavish adherence to the "syntactically singular noun requires singular verb form" rule. Could anyone possibly endorse A couple sits on its own at the back of the bar, for example? – FumbleFingers Feb 2 at 18:00

In American English, it is largely accepted to treat common nouns in the singular. In any type of academic or formal writing, it may be held against you if you do not follow this rule. In UK writing, the opposite is true. In my experience, while in informal situations, you will get away with using one or the other, in more formal contexts styles are strictly followed.

Here are the references:

From the Guardian and Observer style guide (UK) Source: https://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-c

Nouns such as committee, family, government, jury, squad and team take a singular verb or pronoun when thought of as a single unit, but a plural verb or pronoun when thought of as a collection of individuals:

The committee gave its unanimous approval to the plans;

The committee enjoyed biscuits with their tea.

The family can trace its history back to the middle ages;

The family were sitting down, scratching their heads.

The squad is looking stronger than for several seasons;

The squad are all very confident that they will win promotion this season

Here is the APA's (most used in the US) Source: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/grammar/subject_verb_agreement.html

Collective nouns are words that imply more than one person but that are considered singular and take a singular verb, such as group, team, committee, class, and family.

The team runs during practice.

The committee decides how to proceed.

The family has a long history.

My family has never been able to agree.

The crew is preparing to dock the ship.

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