Synesis, Metonymy and the FIFA World Cup

I was asleep during last night’s dramatic World Cup game between Portugal and USA which ended in a 2-2 draw thanks to an equaliser in injury time from Portugal. That’s why I found out about the result from Twitter when I woke up this morning. I was struck by the fact that virtually all comments from Americans talked about their team in the singular (e.g. “USA has drawn against Portugal”) whereas on this side of the Atlantic we almost always refer to a team in the plural (e.g. “England have lost against everyone”).

Strictly speaking, the singular form is correct (as was Nelson with his “England expects..” message at Trafalgar) but that doesn’t mean that British English is necessarily wrong. This is an example of a figure of speech called a metonymic shift, whereby a thing or concept is referred to not by its own name but by the name of something associated with it. An example is found in the phrase “to boil a kettle”: obviously it is not the kettle that gets boiled, but the water within it, but this isn’t an error as such, merely a grammatical device. Metonymic shifts also take place when we refer to the Government as “Westminster” or the film-making industry as “Hollywood”.

When we come to the “England lose” verses “England loses” debate, the noun “England” can be taken to mean “The England team” (singular) but in British English the metonymic shift takes this to mean a collection of individual players (plural), i.e. the meaning is transferred from the “England team” to the “England players”. The use of a verb indicating a singular subject constitutes “formal agreement” with “team” whereas the plural form would be “notional agreement”.

I know that this usage is regarded as incorrect by American colleagues I have discussed it with, to the extent that it actually grates on them a bit. But I think “the team are fighting amongst themselves” is a better construction than any I can think of that includes formal rather than notional agreement. Moreover this kind of construction is correct in languages with more precise grammatical rules than English. The Greek term synesis refers to a grammatical alteration in which a word takes the gender or number not of the word with which it should regularly agree, but of some other word implied by that word, a device much used in both Greek and Roman poetry and also in rhetoric. The distinction between “the Government is united” and “the Government are divided” offers a particularly interesting example.

However, having done my best to stick up for “England” as a plural, I can’t help thinking that if they ever learn how to play like a team than as a collection of individuals they might not be so strongly associated with the verb “to lose”…

One Response to “Synesis, Metonymy and the FIFA World Cup”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Hello, Love this blog. Can you help? I put up a notice in the bathroom at work..Clean Hands Saves Lives. Someone corrected it to read Clean Hands SAVE lives. I know my version is correct because of notional agreement as I was thinking of clean hands as a concept. Grammatically they are correct, but how can I adequately explain my position? I would appreciate your help? Am in America but learned British English

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