Synesis, Metonymy and the World Cup

The shock defeat of Germany by South Korea this afternoon means that the world champions fail to progress from the group stage and are eliminated from the competition. In other words, Germany are out. Or should that be Germany is out?

Strictly speaking, the singular form is correct (as was Nelson with his “England expects..” message at Trafalgar) but that doesn’t mean that the English plural 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 “Germany is ” versus “Germany are” debate, the noun “Germany” can be taken to mean “The German 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 “German team” to the “German 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.

Related to this difference is the fact that American sports teams tend to have names that are themselves plural, e.g. the Cubs, the Dolphins, the Jets, the Broncos etc, whereas in Britain they are more often singular (though with exceptions, such as Wolverhampton Wanderers).

Anyway, here’s a quick poll to see what you think:

UPDATE: Just to prove, as if it were needed, that I don’t have a life, I had a look at the English Football League teams for the 2018/9 season, with the the following results as to how many names are plural:

Premiership: 1/20 (Wolverhampton Wanderers)

Championship: 3/24 (Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Queens Park Rangers)

League One: 3/24 (Bristol Rovers, Wycombe Wanderers, Doncaster Rovers)

League Two: 3/24 (MK Dons, Forest Green Rovers, Tranmere Rovers)

In Scotland there are:

Premiership 1/12 (Rangers)

In the lower divisions there are a further four: out of thirty teams: Aidrieonians, Raith Rovers,Albion Rovers, Berwick Rangers.


14 Responses to “Synesis, Metonymy and the World Cup”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    The Germans themselves are in no doubt: They is out.

    Shall we have the same poll about England in a short while?

  2. The team/player distinction is dependent on commitment to merological sums, shifting the discussion from norms within grammar to full blown metaphysics. JK

  3. The team/player distinction is dependent on commitments to merological sums, thus shifting the discussion from rules of grammar to full blown metaphysics. JK

  4. Apologies, bad connection. I’ve repeated the comment!

  5. Jim Dunlop Says:

    Quite a lot of plural football teams – Bristol Rovers, Raith Rovers, Rangers, Queens Park Rangers, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wycombe Wanderers etc, and even the word “United” suggests a gang brought together. Also, many teams are abbreviated to a plural – Hearts, Hibs, Accies, Gunners, etc.

    • telescoper Says:

      As I mentioned in the post.

      ‘United’and suggests a unity in my way of thinking. Newcastle United, for example, was formed by the merger of Newcastle West End and Newcastle East End.

      Nicknames in football do tend to be plural (Gunners) even if the club is singular (Arsenal).

      Cricket teams have singular names in County Cricket but some have acquired plural names for Twenty20 eg Sussex Sharks.

    • telescoper Says:

      PS. The Old Firm rivalry seems definitely to be between singular Celtic and plural Rangers.

  6. Miss Lemon Says:

    I wonder where Bolton wanders to or to where Bolton wanders,and Wolverhampton too.

    Priscilla Precise Proofreader

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    Coming home! It’s coming home!
    The England team is coming home!

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