Collective nouns (2)



When it comes to subject-verb concord, how do you teach collective nouns such as committee, family and government?

The usual statement that they are singular when treated as a single unit and plural when their members are taken into consideration is practically of little value to learners of English. What one thinks is singular might be plural to another.

And to make matters worse, there is allegedly a difference between AmE and BrE on this issue.

Suppose that our students are asked to fill in the following blanks:


The Cabinet ______ (meet) every week.


The family ______ (be) listening to the radio.


The committee _____ (be) divided in opinion.


The football team _____ (be) having baths and _____ (be) then coming back here for tea.


The government _____ (have) asked the country to decide by a vote.

Are there any PRACTICAL rules to be offered to our students?

Chuncan Feng
Posted 06 October 2002

Having consulted Quirk,* Huddleston,** Biber,*** and others, I'm afraid that I have found little further information with practical value other than what you have already mentioned - that when the speaker perceives a singular unit, s/he uses a singular verb, and when the speaker perceives separate items, s/he uses a plural verb.

You are also correct when you mention the BrE/AmE difference - collective nouns more often take a plural verb in BrE and a singular verb in AmE. The only practical suggestion here is that if it is necessary to guess, you might default to a plural verb in BrE and a singular verb in AmE. Thus, in London you could hear "The government have raised taxes again," but in Chicago "The government has raised taxes again."

However, the entry under "Concord with collective nouns" in Biber is so interesting and informative that I am copying it in its entirety. This reference is a grammar based on analysis of a 40-million-word corpus of text representing different registers (e.g., conversation [CONV], newspaper language [NEWS] fiction [FICT], etc.) Here is the entry:

Most collective nouns, such as "committee" and "government," typically take singular concord:

Writing in the Harvard International Review, he says that his [committee] approves covert operations only when there's a consensus. (NEWS)

The Government has indicated it will make provision in the Bill for such an amendment.(NEWS)

In contrast, a few collective nouns such as "family" and "crew" regularly take both singular and plural concord in BrE, although singular concord is preferred in AmE:

Her own [family] has suffered the anguish of repossession. (NEWS)

The [family] are absolutely devastated. They are coping as well as possible, but they are desperately upset. (NEWS)

She was nice to everyone in the cast, even the actors no one else knew, and the [crew] was crazy about her. (FICT)

The aircraft was substantially damaged and the three [crew] were injured. (NEWS)

In fact, nearly all collective nouns occasionally occur with plural concord in BrE:

The [Government] have decreed that we will have to rebid for our betting license in 1992. (NEWS)

Note that examples with plural verb form frequently contain plural personal pronouns and possessive determiners co-referent with the collective noun:

The [committee] were in there, [they] had all [their] special seats there, [their] drinks ready right, and [they] said right girls, you ready to start?(CONV)

The use of the relative pronoun "who" with a collective noun as antecedent also tends to combine with plural verb forms. However, there is no complete agreement between the choice of verb forms and co-referent pronouns/ determiners.

For plural concord to be available, the meaning of the verb must clearly be applicable to individual members of the group. Thus singular concord only is found in cases such as: The committee comprises/ consists of/ has eight members. But singular concord extends far beyond such examples and is the predominant choice with a wide range of verbs. Sometimes there is variation in the same context:

Most of those seasons have involved a struggle against relegation and, while they have been lucky to survive some, this [team] are good enough to stay up...Indeed, he says: "This [team] is good enough to stay up but whether we will I don't know."(NEWS)

Here the same statement is reproduced exactly, once with plural concord and once with singular concord.

The word staff is exceptional in that plural concord is by far the more frequent option:

The [staff] carry messages from guest to guest. (FICT)

When [staff] are absent, a class is split between other teachers. (NEWS)

Staff differs from other collective nouns in combining with numerals and quantifiers such as all and some and in being able to occur without determiners. We may conclude that staff behaves very much like s-less plurals of the type police and people.

Another special case is the use of plural concord with singular proper names where they denote sports teams:

Reg, see where [Tottenham] are in the league?(CONV)

[England] have been here almost a week, practicing every day in sauna-bath temperatures for their opening match against Sri Lanka on Sunday. (NEWS)

This pattern is regularly found in BrE news but does not occur in AmE (unless the name of the sports team is in the plural, e.g. The New York Giants)."

As for the test questions you have given, as a North American I would answer them like this:


The Cabinet meets every week.


The family is listening to the radio.


The committee is divided in opinion.


The football team are having baths and are then coming back here for tea. (Note: This sentence would probably not be spoken in AmE. A more likely sentence would be something like: "The football team are taking showers and then they're coming back here." Because it is clear in this sentence that the taking of showers is done individually by several people, it is natural to use the plural verb.)


The government has asked the country to decide by a vote.

In each of the sentences except # 4, my conception of the collective noun is that of one unit acting.


*Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Longman, 1985).
**Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
***Biber et al., Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. (Longman, 1999).

Return to the Key Word Index