The United States is, not are. The Civil War was fought over a verb. (Carl Sandburg cited in Walker-Read, 1974: 12)
The article aims to find out whether verbal concord with collective nouns (e.g. committee) in British English is indeed governed by the commonly accepted principle that a focus on the individuals that belong to the group results in the use of a plural verb, whereas a focus on the group as a unit leads to the use of a singular verb. This is a quantitative study: data extracted from the British English sections of the Collins Cobuild corpus have been subjected to statistical tests. The investigation reveals that, with a few exceptions, the preference for a singular verb of the so-called ‘verb-number-variable’ collectives (i.e. collective nouns that occur with both singular and plural verbs) is significant, which suggests that semantic and pragmatic factors do not play the crucial role they are commonly thought to play in the verb number assignment process. The article also includes taxonomic observations: in the first part, in which collectives are defined, a survey is given of their semantic and morphosyntactic characteristics.