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pronoun agreement: collective nouns

Pronouns have to agree in number with the words they refer to (called their antecedents). That is, a pronoun must be singular when its antecedent is singular, and plural when its antecedent is plural.

But when the antecedent is a singular collective noun, it can be difficult to decide whether the pronoun should be singular or plural. A collective noun names something that has many members or parts: for example, cast, committee, club, company, group, staff or team. Because these nouns include many members, they may have a plural meaning even when they are singular in form.

Use these guidelines to decide on pronoun agreement with a collective noun.

Singular meaning

If the members of the group are acting as a unit, the noun will be singular and will take a singular pronoun:

  • The staff has achieved its goal of collecting $5,000 in the marathon.
  • The cast will present its final performance Sunday evening.

Plural meaning

If the members are acting individually, the noun has a plural meaning and will take a plural pronoun:

  • The staff have submitted their reports.
  • The cast tried on their costumes before the dress rehearsal.

Hint: Plural meaning is often indicated by the presence of plural nouns (like reports and costumes in the examples above).