Collective Nouns: Singular or Plural?

Since the days of co-founder Frank Moran, the firm has collectively despised the “e” word: “employee.” Why? Because it connotes that we work for each other versus with each other. We prefer to use “staff” or “team” instead, which is great—except they lead to a question of number. Are they singular or plural?

“Staff” and “team” are examples of collective nouns, which are defined as “nouns that denote a group of individuals.” Other examples include “board,” “family,” “band,” and “class.” What makes these words tricky is that they can be singular or plural depending on the context of the sentence. (Too bad we don’t live in England—there all collective nouns are treated as plural. On one hand, you get awkward-sounding sentences like “Radiohead are a band,” but on the other, there’s no ambiguity.)

Since we’re in the United States, however, we have to determine if the collective noun is being used to refer to a single unit or several individuals. If the former, the rule is to opt for singular; if the latter, we should opt for plural. For example:

  1. Our staff is composed of people from all over the Midwest. (Here we’re using staff as a unit. Hence, we use a singular verb.)
  2. You’d think our staff were starving, given the way they attacked those leftovers. (Here we’re referring to all of the individuals within the collective noun. Therefore, we opt for plural.)

Here’s another one:

  1. The team is meeting today. (Again, one unit, so you use a singular verb.)
  2. The team are champions—every last one of them. (Here you’d opt for a plural verb, since you’re referring to all individuals versus a single unit.)

Still, it can sound awkward to say, “The staff are…” or “The team are….” That’s why I rework the sentences whenever I encounter a construction that needs a plural verb:

  1. Our staff members have never seen a leftover they didn’t like. (Doesn’t it sound better by adding “members”?)
  2. Every last member of that team is a champion. (Again, sounds much better than “The team are champions.”)

So what about you? Do you find collective nouns confusing? Do you prefer the English method of pluralizing them indiscriminately? And how great is Radiohead?

Word of the Week: Indiscriminate

Song of the Week:Everything in Its Right Place,” by Radiohead


  1. Melanie says

    Love this one Mindy. This is an issue I struggle with, so will bookmark this one for reference! Thanks for explaining things in such a way that makes me “get it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *