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verb agreement with collective nouns

A present-tense verb (as well as a simple past form of the verb be) must agree in number with its subject. That is, the verb must be singular if its subject is singular, and plural if its subject is plural.

Matching subjects and verbs sounds easy. But confusion can arise when collective nouns are used as subjects.

Collective nouns

A collective noun is used to refer to an entire group of persons, animals or things; it therefore includes more than one member. For example, the collective noun family stands for parents and children. A pack contains many wolves. A flotilla is made up of several boats.

Here are some examples of common collective nouns:

  • People: board, choir, class, committee, family, group, jury, panel, staff
  • Animals: flock, herd, pod, swarm
  • Things: bunch, collection, fleet, flotilla, pack, set

Singular and plural verbs with collective nouns

A plural collective noun takes a plural verb: Families enjoy this restaurant.

A singular collective noun usually takes a singular verb: Our family enjoys this restaurant.

But there are some cases where a singular collective noun actually expresses a plural idea and needs a plural verb. The guidelines below will help you decide whether a singular collective noun takes a singular or plural verb.

When to use a singular verb

When all the members of a collective noun are performing an action as a unit (and that’s usually the case), use a singular verb.

  • The chamber orchestra often plays at the Art Centre.
  • The cast is celebrating the success of the play with a party after the performance.
  • A wolf pack hunts as a group.
  • The fleet was anchored in the channel.

When to use a plural verb

When the members of a collective noun are performing an action as individuals, use a plural verb. In this case, all or some members of the group are doing something independently of the other members; the group is not acting together as a unit.

  • The orchestra are tuning their instruments.
  • The cast have been practising their lines.
  • The flock were running off in every direction.
  • The staff disagree on the proposal.

In many cases, it may sound more natural to make the subject plural in form by adding a word like members:

  • The members of the orchestra are tuning their instruments.
  • The cast members have been practising their lines.
  • The staff members disagree on the proposal.