December 2007 Vol. 12 Issue 4
Grammar Trap: staff is vs. staff are (or, verbs for collective nouns)

A reader from Toronto recently asked me to resolve a workplace debate: which is correct, “the staff is” or “the staff are”?

A tricky question, especially since I can’t get the image out of my head of John Lennon saying something like, “The group are looking forward to the next album.”

That phrase struck me as odd, but because it was John Lennon, it also struck me as cool. But was it right?

The group are?

We’ll get to the answer in a moment, but first, we need to understand collective nouns.

A collective noun is a word that describes a number of objects or people — examples include staff, group, band, and team. We know that nouns and verbs have to agree in number. For example, we know it’s wrong to say “he are” because “he” is a singular pronoun and “are” is a plural verb.

Collective nouns give us fits because they seem to be both singular and plural.

It can be even more confusing because in British usage (think of our reader in Toronto) the tendency is to make all these collective nouns plural. See, there was a reason for me to talk about the Beatles.

So what’s the solution? I’m afraid it’s another “it depends” answer.

If the collective noun (staff) is acting as a single unit, use the singular verb: “The staff is very efficient.”

If the collective noun is meant to highlight the actions of discrete individuals who are all doing different things, use the plural verb: “The staff are working on many projects for the holiday party.”

I heard a rumor that the band is performing at that party.

Kevin Leigh Smith, kevlsmith@purdue.edu
 
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