The Grammarphobia Blog

Group-think

Q: I’ve always understood that collective nouns are treated as singular, but I recently stumbled upon a rule in The Chicago Manual of Style (my company’s guiding light) that threw me for a loop: “When the subject is a collective noun conveying the idea of plurality, the verb is plural {the faculty were divided in their sentiments}.” Huh?

A: Contrary to what many people believe, collective nouns aren’t automatically accompanied by singular verbs in American English.

It’s true that a collective noun is singular in form: “group,” “bunch,” “team,” “band,” and so on.

But it sometimes conveys a plural idea, and refers to the separate individuals who make up the group, not the group itself.

When that’s the case, the collective noun is what linguists call a “notional plural” (that is, it’s plural in meaning), so it’s accompanied by a plural verb.

We’ve written frequently on our blog about collective nouns and notional agreement, including postings in 2007, 2010, and 2011.

“Couple” is a good example of a collective noun that can be regarded either as a single unit (“The couple in 4G makes a lot of noise”), or as individuals (“The couple are working in different cities”).

The first “couple” is a single unit; the second “couple” refers to two people working in different places.

In the case of “faculty,” if you mean a unified body of people, then it’s singular: “The faculty opposes the measure.”

But if you’re speaking of the faculty as a group of individuals—especially if they’re not acting in unison—then the idea of plurality comes into play and a plural verb is appropriate: “The faculty were divided.”

And of course if a plural pronoun follows, the need for a plural verb is more obvious: “The faculty were divided in their sentiments.”

We should note that these conventions are a matter of idiom. What we’ve described here, and what you’ll find in The Chicago Manual of Style, is typical American usage. British usage differs, as we’ve written on our blog.

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