United We Is

On hold to United Airlines recently, I had plenty of chance to learn about the exciting benefits of flying with them. One in particular has prompted this post:

We are proud to be a member of the Star Alliance rewards program. As a member of the largest world’s largest rewards program, our customers benefit from…

We all learn pretty early on that the verbs we use have to “agree” with the subject (I am, for example, or as in the title of this piece, We are). But actually, “agreement” is more complicated than just verbs and subjects – the whole phrase should agree, and it’s the kind of mistake that is easy to miss when proof-reading and impossible to rely on spellcheckers for.

Take a look at that quote from United. I should admit it’s written here from memory, so might be slightly inaccurate, but the crucial parts are definitely verbatim. First sentence:

“We (pl) are (pl) proud to be a member (sing)”.

Purists would prefer “United (sing) is (sing) proud to be a member (sing)”, or at least “We (pl) are (pl) proud that United (sing) is a member (sing)”. But the version chosen is fine, because companies are weird things and get to be both singular and plural at once. There is only one membership (United’s), so it would be wrong to say “we are proud to be members” and if you’re going to put United in the first person, we sounds better than I.

As an aside, a few other words are like companies – Family, Team, Staff, for example. In all these cases, whether you go for the singular “The family welcomes you” or the plural “The staff are delighted” depends on whether you are really talking about the entity (in the example above, “the family”) or its individual components (the members of “the staff”) and it’s a big topic which I’m not going to get into here. Suffice to say “We (the individuals who make up United) are proud [that United is] a member” works.

It’s actually the second sentence which irked me:

As a member (sing) of the largest world’s largest rewards program, our customers (pl) benefit from…

That’s just wrong. The “as” part must agree with the rest of the sentence, and “our customers” is plural. We are now talking about the customers, and their memberships, not the membership of the company as a whole. Each customer has a membership, so we should have “As members (pl) of the … program, our customers benefit from…”. United isn’t the subject of this sentence, the customers are.

It’s far from simple, this agreement thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth getting it right. For a rule of thumb, a sentence should be either singular or plural. If it’s mixed it’s either wrong, or (like the first sentence above) could be rewritten without ill effect.

Of course, by the time I got through to someone at United, I wasn’t in the mood to discuss grammar, so let’s hope they read this blog. For a bit of light relief, check out another of United’s fans…

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4 Comments

Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

4 responses to “United We Is

  1. Darling, you speak my language! There’s nothing fascistic about wanting to speak and write with proper grammar. On a related note, United lost, I mean, forever lost, the guitar of a friend of mine. He was indeed heartbroken.

  2. Hmm, I think you’re missing an alternative interpretation of the second sentence:

    “(Because) United (sing) is (sing) a member of [the program], United’s (sing possessive) customers…”

    The key here being that the first clause can still be talking about the membership of the company as a whole, rather than of the customers.

    That was the first interpretation I ‘got’ when I read it – though I agree yours is also a valid interpretation! That means the second sentence is more in the category of “really should have been rewritten” than “outright wrong”.

    • I’m sure that’s what they meant, Stuart, and if you follow the theory that language is merely for the transmission of ideas, it’s fine because it works. But it’s not right. You can’t imply United into the “As a member” bit, because the subject of the sentence is “our customers”.
      It’s not just a pl / sing issue. If I said “As a Mum, Sebastian can do no wrong”, you might understand that I meant “As a Mum, [I feel] Sebastian can do not wrong,” but it wouldn’t make the sentence grammatically correct.

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