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TWTS: Collective nouns collectively confuse

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This week, we face a challenge — one that only a language nerd could love: When using a collective noun, should the verb agree with the singularity of the noun’s grammar or the plurality of the noun’s meaning? Given our status as well-practiced language nerds, we have confidently accepted said challenge.

The question of collective nouns and singular agreement vs. plural agreement comes to us from our listener Bob Kulow:

“I see sentences such as, ‘The troop of Boy Scouts are on a hike,’” Bob says. “It seems to me that ‘troop’ is a collective noun and should take a singular verb so the sentence should read, ‘The troop of Boy Scouts is on a hike.’”

This is a question that plagues many of us on the regular. Even Professor Anne Curzan, who frequently refers to “the faculty” in communications, has to stop and ask herself whether “the faculty” is singular as a body, or whether it’s plural, since the faculty consists of many members.

Collective nouns are singular nouns that describe a group of individuals or things. For example, a jury, a family, a couple, the faculty, etc. When faced with the question of whether we should use singular agreement or plural agreement with collective nouns, there are two ways to think about it: meaning and geography.

In terms of meaning, agreement can depend on whether we’re talking about a collective as a single unit or as separate individuals. For example, you could say, “Her family is highly educated.”

However, if you’re talking about all the individual members of her immediate family, you might say something like, “Her immediate family are all doctors.” Here, you’re referring to all the members of her family, and they all happen to be doctors.

So is one more right than the other? Not really. As Professor Anne Curzan says, “The nice thing here is that you can’t go too wrong.”

Consider our listener Bob’s example of the hiking Boy Scout troop. It could take a singular verb, “The troop of Boy Scouts is on a hike.” However, it could also take a plural verb, “The troop of Boy Scouts are on a hike.”

In terms of geography, if you’re from the U.S., you’re likely to use singular agreement when talking about something like a jury, e.g., “The jury is done deliberating.” If you’re from the U.K, you’re more likely to use plural agreement, as in “The jury are done deliberating.”

Some style guides will tell you to simply choose one and be consistent. If you start off using singular agreement in a document, then stick with singular agreement. If you start with plural agreement, stick with plural agreement.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.