With A Collective Noun Do You Use A Singular Or Plural Verb Form?
Can a collective noun use a singular or plural verb form?
In some cases, collective nouns can take either singular or plural verbs.
But it depends on which form of English you are using.
The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.
When is there a choice of verb form?
I decided to write this post after receiving quite a few criticisms regarding my occasional plural use of certain collective nouns.
It happens in particular when referring to corporations such as Amazon and Apple.
This is understandable, though.
Because all the critical remarks I have received have been from the US, where singular usage of collective nouns is almost always the rule.
But it is surprising that many US readers failed to notice that I sometimes use British spelling.
It should give a clue to the fact that I am not always writing in US English.
There are a lot of grammar and vocabulary variations between the many different forms of English.
The beauty of our language is to understand and accept these variations.
So, why do I insist on (sometimes) using a plural verb with a collective noun?
When is a collective noun singular or plural?
In US English, a collective noun such as Amazon would almost always carry singular verbs and pronouns.
For example, Amazon sells books. It is a big bookseller.
Apple has released a new phone. It sells lots of phones.
In British English, which is the form of English I use, it is more common to use plural verbs and pronouns.
Amazon sell ebooks worldwide. They are a big bookseller.
Apple have sold a lot of iPhones. They sell millions of phones in many countries.
My reasoning for often choosing to use the plural verb form is that corporations are, by definition, a collection of parts or a group of people.
In the case of Amazon, there are multiple stores, such as Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.de, plus many more.
When you use the plural, it gives the sense of these multiple components.
When is a team singular or plural?
Companies and corporations can be compared to the collective noun, team.
Both singular and plural verbs can be used because of the notion of the individual members of a team. Or, on the other hand, the unity of a team.
The team is winning. This expresses unity.
The team are celebrating their victory.
This says that the members of the team are celebrating together but each one in their own individual way.
If you refer to members of a jury, it takes the plural form.
The jurors are deliberating.
But when the collective noun refers to the entire panel of jurors, it is a jury. Now it is a single unit.
The jury is deliberating.
But in UK English, one could possibly say:
The jury are deliberating.
It’s a choice
The resistance to the use of plural verbs with collective nouns rests only on one side of the Atlantic.
For the rest of the English speaking world, there is no problem with using a plural verb, as long as it agrees with the accompanying pronoun.
Amazon sell a lot of books to their customers.
Amazon sells a lot of books to its customers.
I will continue to use plural verbs and agreement with a collective noun when appropriate.
British English allows me this flexibility.
I will still get a bit cranky when I receive complaints from those with a lack of knowledge about this grammar point.
We use singular or plural depending on where we live.
Related reading: Using They As The Third-Person Singular Personal Pronoun
Collective Nouns – The Grammar Girl
The Collective Noun – Chompchomp
Should I use a singular or a plural verb with a collective noun? – dictionary.com
12 thoughts on “With A Collective Noun Do You Use A Singular Or Plural Verb Form?”
Well, I always tell my students that when we are referring to the collective noun as an entity use the singular, and as components of the entity use plural, but also say that the use of plural is an option as well, and consider both answers correct. Since we are in Lebanon and we are teaching and learning the language as foreign language I am obliged to give all the variations. However, I faced a difficulty today when I was preparing an assessment and wanted to use the noun “Cattle”. so my question is “cattle is?” or “cattle are?’ or as you explained above both are possible depending which side of the Atlantic you live?
Of course, in ‘Away in a manger’ the ‘cattle are lowing.’ I couldn’t imagine singing that carol with ‘cattle is lowing’. As a British person, the plural always sounds better to me, to see a singular verb with a collective noun really grates on my teeth.
I’d never heard of the British use of plural verbs for collective nouns before reading this post. Naturally, as an American, it seems incongruent to me, and I have a question regarding it. You wrote that the plural is used in the case of Amazon because “corporations are by definition, a collection of parts or a group of people.” Do you also use the plural when using the literal words “collection” and “group”? Do you say “the collection are” and “the group are”? To us, a group is A thing, A whole composed of parts, yes, but because they join together, they become a new singular thing. Crazy how the same language differs in details. :-)
It is always a matter of context, Judi. A group would normally be singular. But if you are referring to a group of musicians, you could say, the group are playing a concert tonight. But a collection is normally singular.
British English gives you a choice when referring to either the whole or the parts of the whole.
The link at the end of this article to the Grammar Girl gives some great examples.
An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.
I think that North Americans deserve no leeway, given what they have done to the English language. I also think that they don’t really care one iota. They just like to complain, and usually about something which they are incredibly well ill-informed.
Have to say I also disagree about company names (I’m British!). I do a lot of business writing, and always treat corporations as singular and neuter. That said, I think in this instance consistency within the document is the main thing: I’ve found many writers chop and change.
I use a singular noun and a close friend uses a plural. We are both doing what we were taught to do in selective secondary education in the UK in the 1950s about 50 miles apart. Language changes constantly according to usage, and I do not believe in this instance either can be said to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ on either side of the Atlantic.
Thank your for your comment, Aisling. This is always a touchy subject. My education was from a similar time in Australia and the plural use was encouraged. However, due to it annoying many of my US blog readers, as the comments above indicate, I have now changed to using the singular on this site. However, on my personal blog, I still like to use the plural occasionally, just for fun.
There are also aesthetic arguments: if use of the plural verb in such circumstances sounds odd, avoid it. Otherwise, the reading audience is/are encouraged to use either….
I completely disagree about using plural verbs with company names. The various and combined efforts of employees are plural; the collective efforts of different companies or divisions of a corporation are plural; but a company corporate name is one single entity. No, I will redline and CORRECT anything I edit that does not adhere to this simple principle of grammar. Without context, a stand alone use of a plural verb with a company name is not acceptable because there is too large of a segment of grammar-conscious readers to whom this disrupts the flow of story or information
As ever, things are never as simple as you (singular) would like to imply.
Derek – another great article on your excellent site. While I accept much of what you say in this article (I have also been upbraided by an American editor for using a plural verb with a collective noun), I believe your argument is problematic, You say:
“My reasoning for often choosing to use the plural verb form is that corporations are by definition, a collection of parts.”
In fact, by definition, a corporation is a legally singular identity. Further, if we accepted your reason, we would debate whether to use a plural verb for a person, which conceptually is a collection of parts according to some philosophers, i.e. a body AND a mind, This is not the place to enter that debate, but it really does depend on how the writer PERCEIVES the collective noun, which I think is your main point.
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