Collective nouns

Further to our previous post about the collective noun “staff”, this post explores the grammatical conventions relating to collective nouns more generally.

As a reminder, collective nouns are nouns that refer to a group of some sort – like team, family, committee, government, or even staff!

As mentioned previously, in British English, one would tend to use the plural form, in American English the singular.

Another factor here, however, is what emphasis you want to add to the sentence. In British English, at least, if you want to emphasise that the group is acting as a single entity then you would be more likely to use a singular verb. So, one might say “The Government is going to increase taxes.” (Here government is a collective noun, like staff, but we are using a singular verb because we are seeing it like a single “thing”). On the other hand, if you want to emphasise the group as containing potentially disparate individuals you would use the plural. Compare the following:

“My team is getting bigger every year”

“My team are working hard to put this right for you.”

So, in British English, you have a bit more flexibility regarding the use of singular or plural verbs with collective nouns. That said, it does depend on the particular noun – words like government, committee or family can be used with singular or plural verbs in British English (depending on the emphasis you want), but “staff is” just doesn’t sound “right” in British English, and we would tend to edit that to “staff are”.

On the other hand, in American English, we would advise always using singular verbs with collective nouns and adding additional words to alter the subject of the sentence if you want to emphasise the individuality in the group. So, to revise the sentence above:

“The members of my team are working hard to put this right for you.”