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A Word, Please: A simple rule for nouns that are singular and plural at the same time

The Hawes Elementary Choir performs at the District Arts Show.
Grammar expert June Casagrande writes that collective nouns like “choir” can use singular or plural nouns, often leading to confusion for writers.
(File Photo)

The couple is going to purchase the house? Or the couple are going to purchase the house? Even after all my years of editing, I can still get tripped up trying to make verbs agree with collective nouns like “couple,” “team” and “majority.”

Collective nouns are singular in form, “a team,” but refer to a group of two or more people or things. In other words, they’re singular and plural at the same time. And since verbs are supposed to agree in number with their subjects — one cat is, two cats are — the roughly 200 collective nouns in our language cause a lot of confusion.

Compare:

The family is gathering at the park. The family are all accountants.

The staff is well trained. The staff are experts in customer service.

The choir is excellent. The choir are arguing among themselves.

The majority is powerful. The majority are enrolled full time.

Sometimes collective nouns seem to make more sense as plurals, while other times they make more sense as singulars. When you’re trying to write grammatically, that seems like a problem. But it’s not, because the rule is: If you mean it as a plural, it’s plural. If you mean it as a singular, it’s singular.

In most cases, this hinges on whether the individuals in your collective are acting collectively — the orchestra is playing Tuesday — or they’re acting individually — the orchestra are tuning their instruments.

With collective nouns, consistency counts. “The main consideration in skillfully handling them is consistency in the use of a singular or plural verb,” writes Garner’s Modern American Usage. “If, in the beginning of an essay, the phrase is ‘the faculty was,’ then every reference to ‘faculty’ as a noun should be singular throughout the whole.”

Your readers will thank you if you work to find fresh ways to engage them, writes grammar expert June Casagrande.

Good advice in most cases, but this isn’t always practical. For example, you may have one sentence where the collective noun works best with a singular verb and another sentence in which the same noun works better with a plural. So when consistency isn’t an option, forget it.

Often, you can sidestep awkward collective nouns by tweaking the subject. The team can be the team members, which takes the guesswork out of how to conjugate the verb. Singers in the choir. Majority of students. Family members. Team players. When you add a plural noun, it’s much easier because it’s clear you need a plural verb: singers in the choir are, majority of students are, family members are, team players are.

Constructions with “of” phrases are harder. For example, in “A herd of gazelles is/are on the savanna,” you have two nouns: the head word in this noun phrase is the collective “herd,” which could take a singular verb. But “herd” is modified by the prepositional phrase “of gazelles,” which clearly uses a plural.

Some people argue that, because the prepositional phrase “of gazelles” is really working like an adjective here, the head noun, “herd,” should govern the verb. But in fact there’s no reason the object of the preposition, “gazelles,” can’t have its own verb. So again, you get to choose.

If “a team of rivals is assembled” sounds better to you than “a team of rivals are assembled,” use it. If “a bunch of losers are gathered” sounds better than “a bunch of losers is gathered,” go with that. As the writer or speaker, you get to choose which noun gets the verb.

All this applies more to Americans than to Brits, by the way. In the U.K., plural verbs are more often preferred with collective nouns, which sounds downright weird when talking about sports teams in headlines like “Mexico take gold cup.”

That may sound normal to British English speakers, but for Americans it illustrates the most important lesson about collective nouns: Go with what sounds best.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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