Collective nouns can cause conundrums

Melissa Wardell | September 29, 2014

I’ve studied the English language for years but its idiosyncrasies still occasionally have me scratching my head.

Take for example collective nouns. These words give a singular label to a group that has no fewer (and usually more) than two people or things. If we’re talking about groups of people, think team, committee, family, and staff.

When using these nouns to talk about groups of individuals, how do we pair them with verbs in a sentence? That is, are they singular or plural? Do we say ‘the family is’ or ‘the family are’?

Is there a right answer?

As it turns out, this question has several possible answers. American English, for example, refers to collective nouns differently from British English; Americans are more likely to treat them as single units. And there’s a lot of room for personal choice on the matter too (but think about who you’ll be debating with once you’ve made your mind up!).

To illustrate the conundrum, consider the following situation. Four family members get together to discuss whether or not they should sell their family home, and conclude that they should. Do we say ‘the family agrees’ (singular) or ‘the family agree (plural, referring to the family members)?

In theory, both options are correct, depending on whether you’re treating the family as a single unit or as a group of individuals. My natural instinct in this case would be to go for the plural option of ‘the family agree’.

Image: Family portrait.

Is this family a single unit or a group of individuals?
(Image from County Archives of Sogn og Fjordan, no known copyright restrictions)

Stick to your guns

It seems that the most important factor, when making a decision about using singular or plural verbs with collective nouns, is consistency. For instance, if you agreed with me in the example above and took the plural option, you’d have to be consistent with this choice. It would be confusing to say ‘the family agree but it won’t sell immediately’.

If in doubt

Luckily, there are a couple of easy ways to solve the problem. If you truly can’t decide on whether the collective noun is singular or plural, you can recruit additional words to clear up any possible confusion.

Adding the word ‘member’ can be useful. If you talk about ‘the family members’ rather than ‘the family’, your focus is now on the plural ‘members’.

The other option is to use an entirely different word to replace the collective noun in question. Instead of ‘class’, refer to ‘students’. In place of ‘team’, use ‘players’. ‘Staff’ can be ‘people’. That way, you break the group down into the individuals that make it up.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.