The Grammarphobia Blog

Collective bargaining

Q: Please tell me which verb is correct in this sentence: “Ninety percent of the team is/are men.” The plural “are” sounds correct, but “team” is singular.

A: Our choice is “Ninety percent of the team are men.” Here’s why.

“Percent” is used with both singular and plural verbs. It usually takes a plural verb when followed by “of” plus a plural noun, and takes a singular verb when followed by “of” plus a singular noun.

Example: “Sixty percent of the cookies were eaten, but only twenty percent of the milk was drunk.”  

With your sentence, the question is whether the noun “team” should be treated as singular or plural. This isn’t a black-and-white question!

“Team” is a collective noun: a singular noun that stands for a number of people or things that form a group.

A collective noun takes either a singular or a plural verb, depending on whether you’re talking about the group as a unit (singular) or the individuals (plural).

In this case, the tip-off that we’re talking about individuals is the word “men,” a plural noun.

So we’re talking here about the players who make up the team, not the group as a single unit. This calls for a plural verb: “Ninety percent of the team are men.”

A similar case can be made for the noun “band.” Like “team,” it’s a singular collective noun. But we would say, “Fifty percent of the band are vocalists.”

The singular verb “is” would be dissonant here because the plural “vocalists” indicates that we’re talking about the members of the band, not the group as a whole. 

On the other hand, if we’re talking about the group as a single unit, we use a singular verb: “The team [or band] is playing in Pittsburgh.”  

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has a good explanation of all this. It says in part that collective nouns “have had the characteristics of being used with both singular and plural verbs since Middle English.”

Most of the time, nouns and their verbs agree in number: singular nouns with singular verbs, and plurals with plurals. This is what grammarians mean when they talk about “agreement.” But with collective nouns, what’s at work is “notional agreement.” 

As Merriam-Webster’s says, the principle of notional agreement “is simple: when the group is considered as a unit, the singular verb is used; when it is thought of as a collection of individuals, the plural verb is used.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written blog items on other collective words, including “couple,” “majority,” and “none.”

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