Notes from the Proofreader: Collective Nouns and Verbs

In this edition of “Notes from the Proofreader” we’ll go over how to determine whether a collective noun should be paired with a singular or plural verb to achieve subject-verb agreement.

A collective noun refers to a group of people or things (think team, company, staff, flock, etc.). It’s typically treated as singular in American English, but a collective noun can also be plural if your intent is to emphasize the individual members of the group. Keep that in mind when conjugating the verb in clauses that have a collective noun as the subject. Do you want to focus on the group? If your answer is yes, then go with the third-person singular verb (e.g., the team is celebrating a victory). Do you want to draw attention to the individuals in the group? If that’s the case, then choose the third-person plural verb (e.g., the staff are all at their desks by 9 a.m.).*

However, there are times when the collective noun is not necessarily in control of the verb. When it’s followed by a prepositional phrase (think number of bees or percentage of the pie), look to the article that appears before it to determine what’s in control: the collective noun or the noun in the prepositional phrase. If there’s a the, then the collective noun is in charge and the verb is usually singular (e.g., the number of bees in the wild is decreasing). If it’s an a or an, then the noun in the prepositional phrase wields the power (e.g., a number of bees are out gathering pollen or a significant percentage of the pie is mysteriously missing).†

* “Should I use a singular or a plural verb with a collective noun?” Dictionary.com (blog), October 7, 2015, http://blog.dictionary.com/collective-nouns/

† Bryan A. Garner, “Grammar and Usage,” in The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 205, http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/ch05/ch05_sec009.html.

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