The Cacophany of Collective Nouns

Why do we have so much trouble with collective nouns? Staff, faculty, herd, group, team, senate, congress, cast, crew, jury, choir, committee, majority, minority … the list goes on.

Collective nouns signal a group of people or things that may act as individuals or one entity. And there’s the rub.

When we want the context to say that this group acts as a single unit, then we use a singular verb in the sentence. (“The committee is in session.”) When we want to say that the individual members of the group do something, we use a plural verb. (“The faculty are presenting at the October oncology symposium.”) Sounds simple, right?

The faculty is/are receiving raises this year.
(Could go either way, depending on the context.)

The crew is/are in charge of maintaining the sails.
(Doesn’t sound right unless you use “is.”)

The team run/runs through six defensive drills during every practice.
(That one is a no-brainer.)

So why does this get murky?

Most of the pizza is/are gone.
(“Are” would sound good in the pizza sentence if we said “Most of the pizzas”—because we’d definitely be talking about more than one pizza. But, “Most of the pizza is gone” is fine grammatically because it considers the pizza order as a whole.)

One-third of all Americans is/are overweight.
“Are” sounds good here because “Americans” comes right before the verb. But “Americans” is the object of a prepositional phrase—not the subject of the sentence. So, is “one-third” singular or plural?) Here’s where common sense must prevail. You can be grammatically correct and still leave readers scratching their heads.

Here’s an example and a “test” you can do to help you determine the right wording and subject-verb agreement:
The fourth of the 10 examples is wrong.        
A fourth of the 10 examples are wrong.

The first sentence specifies that only example #4 is wrong, so that takes a singular verb.
The second sentence means 40% of the examples are wrong.
Note the difference in the articles used in the two sentences (“the” vs. “a”). That can be a signal to tell you whether to use a singular or plural verb.

If it sounds awkward no matter what the grammarians say, then rewrite the sentence.

Some of this confusion stems from the use of the word “one.” “One” can be a noun or an indefinite pronoun—that is, a pronoun that doesn’t refer to a specific person, place or thing. “One” is always singular (makes sense), but when we see it hitched to something like “one-third,” we need to think about what type of verb to use with it.

For the record, other indefinite pronouns give us fits because they function collectively, too. “Everyone” and “everybody” take singular verbs. (“Everybody is at the game.”)

You can alleviate some of this problem by living  in a country other than the U.S. The British use the plural more frequently than we do here in the states. They say, “Parliament are in session,” while we say, “The senate is in session.”

So, bottom line: look at the context of the sentence. Is the group acting as a whole, or are its members acting individually? If it’s not that straightforward, run the “test” I suggested. And, above all else, make your writing readable!

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