Singular or Plural?

We've noticed a strange phenomenon lately. Perhaps you've heard of it. It goes like this: one-person companies that usually offer services have outstanding websites with lots of information about services provided, background, contact information, etc. It's fantastic that all these small businesses have a web presence. The strange thing is that we've realized that many of these solo providers -- whether they be graphic designers, accountants, freelance web developers, translators or interpreters -- refer to themselves in the plural. We know it's not a matter of grammar: everyone knows the difference between singular and plural. However, by reading through the website, it is pretty clear that there's only one person who works there. The question then remains: why do solo providers have "About us" pages and talk about "our services" and "we provide"? Do office pets count as employees? We think that deep down, solo providers oftentimes think that they are not good enough because they run a micro operation, but nothing could be further from the truth, in our humble opinion.

First of all, we think all you solo providers should be incredibly proud of running a one-woman/man show. Most people will never be as brave as you are and decide to go into business for yourselves, yet many economies, including the weak American economy, depend on small businesses (says the American government). So: give yourself a pat on the back -- running your own show as a micro business  is great! Now:  there's no need to make yourself sound like a bigger company than you are. There's nothing wrong with being a one-person company; in fact, it's fantastic. We do think it is misleading and well, untruthful, to speak of yourself in the plural when there's only one of you. We checked with our pro bono laywer, and off the top of his head (disclaimer: he was mowing the lawn when we asked), he doesn't think that misrepresentation is strictly illegal, unless you claim to have a certain number of employees or claim to be able to provide specific services that turns out you cannot. So it's not illegal, but is it ethical? That's a personal decision, but we'd say it's probably not. There's no reason to start your business relationship with every single one of your potential customers by telling a white lie. There's only one of you, and that's a good thing (no co-workers, yay). We think transparency is a great thing. Now please go and update the "About us" section and make it "About me." By the way: since we are twins, we do have an "About us" section on our website, as we are two people. Unfortunately, growing up, many people thought we were one person, resulting in one birthday present on our joint birthday. We tried in vain to convince them that "twins" means two people. But that's a topic for another blog post. 

Readers: what do you think? 


13 comments:

Michael on August 14, 2011 at 11:08 PM said...

Amen! Very good point. Don't misrepresent. Another thing I think should be banned: talking about yourself in the third person. On my website I am using the first person singular throughout. However, I opted for "About" – didn't want the "I" and "me" creep into the headlines.

tolken on August 15, 2011 at 12:21 AM said...

The same thing annoys me in scientific papers. There's a very strong tradition to use either "we" or passive form. Personally I believe the whole article is more credible if you use singular "I" when there's only one person performing the study or experiment.
I constantly try to use singular in my articles and I am constantly corrected back to passive by supervisors, editors etc.

Anke Wiesinger on August 15, 2011 at 12:40 AM said...

I have been noticing that too and always thought it a bit strange... I'm a one-woman show and proud of it, and I made sure to only use the singular on my website!

The only possible explanation I can think of as to why people do this - other than the one you mentioned - would be that they have one or several other people who provide additional services for them (e.g. proofreading in the case of translators) whom they consider being part of their company.
I still wouldn't say we, though...

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 15, 2011 at 9:24 AM said...

@Michael: thanks for commenting. Good idea to just have "About" and omit any pronouns. We are not as allergic to the third person as you are, but we totally see your point. :)

@Tolken: interesting; we'd never thought about it, but now that you mention it... we do edit quite a bit of academic papers (non-scientific) and the researchers do always refer to "us" (we do make a note about that when it's clearly only one researcher). Too funny that you are being corrected -- editing is a very tough/subjective thing.

@Anke: awesome that you are proud of being such an amazing one-woman show; kudos to you! You are right. Some providers might refer to themselves in the plural when they continuously collaborate with others for additional services. We would only do that if it really is a continuous working relationship rather than an occasional collaborating -- but that's just us.:)

Curri on August 16, 2011 at 2:27 AM said...

I think the major problem is that many companies who are looking for multilingual translation providers don't trust you when you say you work alone but that you have loads of colleagues who would be able to do thetranslatio in the other languages. I have found myself in that situation a couple of times: even thoug I was offering a lower rate than any agency (because there is no middle man/woman), and insisted that the work can be done to the highest quality and in all languages they need, they still "prefer" an agency because they believe me and my colleagues cannot do the job as well as an agency would...

Evvie Sands on August 16, 2011 at 7:04 AM said...

I definitely think it's a cultural thing: though in America businesspeople (i.e. big fish) would prefer that if you go solo to claim it so, here in Latinamerica entrepreneuship has got a sort of "bad image" often linking freelancing with "no work only play" attitude. Thus, hardworking, often misunderstood freelancers might prefer to shield behind the "us" to avoid being laughed at.
This is slowly changing, thankfully.

Nataša on August 17, 2011 at 2:16 AM said...

I have been thinking about the plural/singular issue quite a lot lately - since I read your book, actually (it is brilliant!). I created my website a few months ago and chose to present my company as a family business although there's only me (as the translator and owner and manager) and my husband who occasionally helps me with finance and marketing. So, should I include him and present the company as "us" or not, what do you think? I really can't decide on this one ...

However, I do think this is a cultural thing but if it is, I am surprised that people use plural in the USA where inidividualism is strongly emphasised. In Slovenia, however, we have a rather low self-esteem as a nation and like to hide ourselves in the crowd. Putting too much focus on yourself is considered a bit vulgar, I think. No one would probably admit that :-)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 17, 2011 at 9:50 PM said...

@Curri: yes, good point. Unfortunately, there might be no way to persuade that customer that small businesses are the best solution for them. That will definitely happen from time to time. It's unfortunate, but I do see how sometimes large corporations *think* that fellow large companies can provide the best language services, even if that's not always the case.

@Evvie: interesting cultural difference. You are right; freelancing still has a long way to go in other countries for sure. Here's to making it happen!

@Nataša: thanks for commenting and glad you like the book. Agreed, tricky issue. We are not experts on the Slovakian market, but we always do think that honesty is your best policy. Your situation is indeed a tricky one -- your hubby does occasionally work for you, but technically, it's just you. We'd say go for your gut feeling. Although our hubbies do a lot of work on our business (on the tech side and on the legal side), they are pro bono (yay) and we don't include them in the "About us" section. Or perhaps we should? Sigh...:)

Thanks for the interesting comments, everyone!

EP on August 21, 2011 at 6:33 AM said...

I think that's an interesting point. There are indeed two of us in our case (like you guys, I guess), but it is true that one could easily get the impression that there are more of us translating than there are. Nobody is trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes in this case, however, it was simply a matter of finding a name that seemed appropriate or at least perhaps easy to remember, for marketing reasons, I guess you'd say. Anyway, the point you made is certainly one that one should keep in mind when working on his/her Internet presence.

May on August 25, 2011 at 9:24 AM said...

I clearly must be American because I want very much for my clients to know who I am since I provide a bio and even a photo. I feel it is a way to convey to clients that I take their projects seriously because my professional reputation is on the line - there's no hiding behind an anonymous company name if something isn't right.

Diana Coada on August 30, 2011 at 2:09 PM said...

As Michael has already mentioned, talking about yourself in the third person (I've been noticing this a lot lately in various CVs)is even more annoying..

Yes, we are a one (wo)man show and we should be proud of it!

Heather on August 31, 2011 at 10:02 AM said...

I have noticed this with a lot of freelance translators, and as a relatively new translator setting up my website for the first time, I have been wondering lately whether that is just the accepted practice, so thank you for opening the discussion. Personally, I feel that using "we" to sound more credible seems dishonest, especially when a client can easily guess that you are only one person. On the other hand, I understand the desire to appear more credible by sounding like you have an office full of people working for you. I think I will go with the humble but honest singular.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 31, 2011 at 10:46 PM said...

@EP: thanks for reading and commenting! Sounds like you have a wonderful two-person company, just like the two of us. Here's to successful partnerships!

@May: we could not agree more. Hiding behind an anonymous, corporate-looking company website is not a good way to build trust with potential clients. We also think it's important to let the public know who the service providers are. We also like including photos, as it creates some sort of connection.

@Diana: ah, the famous third person in CVs. We think that's quite common practice, even though we haven't worked on our CVs in a while -- we send marketing presentations instead. It is a bit annoying, you are right...

@Heather: you are welcome, and we are happy to help. We don't think it's established practice to use "we" instead of "I," and you are doing the right thing -- in our mind -- by choosing the honest/humble option. Good luck!

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