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Pavement pedantry: collective nouns – singular or plural?

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Collective nouns. A subject close to our heart. But is a team one, or many? Should staff be it or they? And what about a shiver (of sharks)? Well that’s anyone’s guess. It can be tricky to work out whether collective nouns should be singular or plural and there are different rules for different situations. So how do you know what to do? Well, it all comes down to meaning and consistency.

Family, team, staff, herd, faculty, police – all collective nouns: words which name a group or entity as a singular thing. As such, because they are a singular thing they most commonly take the singular form of the verb.

For example:

Our staff is very efficient

The team is ready to go

The herd is on the move

My family is crazy

Some of those sound correct, others not so much, right? That’s because in British English the collective noun singular verb agreement has flitted in and out of usage, depending on region, knowledge and apathy, so that sometimes you’ll see it and sometimes you won’t.

To confuse matters, there are occasions when a collective noun can take a plural verb. If the individuals in the collective noun are doing different things or the emphasis is on the individuals rather than the group, it’s fine to use the plural.

For example:

The staff are working on a variety of projects

The team are heading off in different directions

My family are always fighting amongst themselves


To muddle things still further, some collective nouns are exclusively plural. If you look up the collective noun police for example, you’ll find that it says ‘treat as a plural.’ The police are always are, never is (although this is a solecism that you’ll see everywhere from local newspapers to the BBC, sending shivers down grammar pedants’ spines).

So how on earth are we supposed to know what to do? The key is to consider the meaning of what you’re writing and decide where the emphasis lies, so you can decide whether to use the plural or singular form.

Then the most important thing is to stick with it. Consistency when it comes to collective nouns is paramount. Things unravel fast if you start switching between singular and plural in the same sentence – until your paragraphs are a steaming mess and your brain is addled.

For example, the following sentence is grammatically incorrect because the subject and verb in the first clause (government is) are singular and the subject and verb in the following clause (they have) are plural:

The government is as confused by Brexit as the rest of us: they have no unified view on what actions to take if we do vote leave.

To demonstrate good grammar and to remain consistent, the sentence should be rewritten as:

The  government is as confused by Brexit as the rest of us: it has no unified view on what actions to take if we do vote leave.

Or, because the emphasis is on the individuals in the collective noun (government) taking varied actions, it would be acceptable to use the plural verb form here:

The government are as confused by Brexit as the rest of us: they have no unified view on what actions to take if we do vote leave.

But a word of warning, if you decide to use the plural form here you’ll need to stick with it throughout. Consistency is the trump card in these situations.

Because it makes your grammar choice deliberate – and being deliberate is as good as being right. If you ask us.


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