Subject–verb agreement in the English language is complicated. When you have to deal with tense, gender, number, irregular verb forms (Need I go on?), it can be quite the task to ensure that the subjects and verbs in your sentences agree. Assembling the pieces of this grammar puzzle correctly is not easy.
To add another layer of difficulty, collective nouns are crafty little pieces of the grammar puzzle that introduce even more challenges to achieving subject–verb agreement.
Collective nouns are used to refer to a group and, as with other nouns, may include people, places, ideas, or things. Some examples of collective nouns include the words group, congregation, committee, pack, public, minority, audience, jury, and band.
The tricky thing is that, when trying to figure out how to use collective nouns, the question of whether to use a singular or plural verb form depends on whether you are writing in American or British English.
Collective Nouns in American English
In American English, collective nouns generally take the singular verb form.
The jury has (singular) reached a verdict.
The public is (singular) alarmed at the rising cost of housing.
In these examples, the collective nouns are treated as a whole. The jury, as a group, has collectively reached the verdict. All of the public is alarmed by rising housing costs. If you want to know how to use collective nouns in American English, you are all set: collective nouns will almost always take singular verbs.
As is the case with most pieces of the grammar puzzle, however, there are a few exceptions to this rule. A few words, such as police and people, are most often used with plural verbs, even in American English.
Collective Nouns in British English
If you are working in British English, you must consider the context of the phrase to determine whether a singular or plural verb form is correct. When you are working with a collective noun and are writing in British English, you must consider whether the members or elements of the group are working in unison (i.e., as a cohesive whole) or whether the individual members or elements of the group are acting separately.
The audience claps (singular) in excitement.
The committee disagree (plural) on the timeline for the project.
The band are (plural) practicing their individual instruments.
To American English speakers who are familiar with collective nouns and singular verbs, the last two examples above might sound odd. But try to think of it this way: the members of the committee disagree with one another regarding the timeline for the project. The opinions differ within the committee itself. The distinct members of the band are practicing their specific instruments. To ensure that the use of the plural verb form is correct in these sentences, test it by adding the word members after the collective nouns.
The committee members disagree on the timeline for the project.
The band members are practicing their individual instruments.
When working with collective nouns, remember that singular verbs are generally used in American English. In British English, it is important to analyze the context in which the collective noun is used. Employ a singular verb form when the members are performing the action in unison; employ a plural verb form when the individual members of the group are acting independently.
With these simple tricks, you should have no trouble assembling the tricky puzzle of English grammar, even when you’re dealing with collective nouns.
Image source: markusspiske/Pixabay.com