Even I wouldn’t use a plural verb here

On the tail end of a radio interview a couple of days ago, I heard someone say ‘agriculture are playing an important part’. ‘Agriculture are’ combines a singular noun with a plural verb and sounded very odd to me.

Not a slip of the tongue

All of us sometimes get distracted in the middle of a sentence and, forgetting how we started the sentence, end it in a manner inconsistent with the beginning. But this instance didn’t sound to me like a slip of the tongue; it sounded intentional (though quite possibly performed sub-consciously).

What did the speaker mean?

I believe the interviewee in this case was some kind of representative of the farming sector. By using ‘agriculture are’, I think he was both emphasising solidarity among members of the agricultural community and positioning himself as a member of that community. I expect he meant something like ‘we in the agricultural sector’.

Singular verb or plural verb?

English speakers and writers sometimes have some freedom in deciding to use a singular verb or a plural verb when the subject refers to, for example, a committee, a sports team, a company or a sports team. Writers on usage often comment that people are less likely to use a plural verb:

  • in a formal context;
  • in writing (rather than in speaking);
  • if they are thinking of the subject as a single institution rather than as a collection of separate individuals;
  • if they use American English (rather than British English).

In A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar,Rodney Huddlestone and Geoffrey K Pullum give the following examples (1) and (2), among others.
(I looked at the first (2005) edition, not the 2nd edition (2021)).

In (1), only the singular verb is likely because ‘consisting entirely of me’ is a property of the entire board, not a property of the individuals on the board.

(1) The board consists entirely of men.

In (2), the plural verb is much more likely because being over forty is a property of the individuals, not a property of the crew as a collective.

(2) The crew are all over forty.

When do I use the plural?

I believe:

  • I always use a plural verb talking about sports teams (whether club sides or national teams) and businesses.
  • in my working days, although my natural talking style would have been to say ‘the Board are’, I consciously trained myself to always use ‘the Board is’ when talking about formal decisions by a standard-setting Board as a collective body. When I wanted to emphasise the role of individuals on the Board, I would say ‘Board Members are’.

I would reasonably happily say ‘the agricultural sector are’. But, although I use the plural verb perhaps a little more often even than many other speakers of British English, I can’t think of any context where I would say ‘agriculture are’. To my ear, ‘agriculture’ is just an abstract non-count noun, with no plural. It cannot refer to an institution that can sometimes be viewed as a collection of individuals.

Minor detail for the record
I’ve written above ‘playing a part’. I’m not sure I’ve remembered the exact words, but those words aren’t important for this post. I definitely heard the words ‘agriculture are’.  

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