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Subject and Verb Agreement with Collective Nouns

English Tip Do you use a singular or plural verb to match a collective noun such as team or staff? The answer is, “It depends.” If these nouns are acting as a unit, use a singular verb.

Example: The team is heading for practice this afternoon.

If the sentence indicates more individuality, use a plural verb.

Example: The team are eating with their families tonight.

Would you choose is or are in the example below?

Example (an actual headline from CNN.com): Nearly one in four people worldwide is/are Muslim.

People is NOT a collective noun like team or staff. It is a plural noun. However, the subject is one, which is singular and takes a singular verb. So the answer is is. In the above sentence, the prepositional phrase is in four people. This means that people is the object of the preposition.

Let’s get real here, however: The intention in this headline is to let us know that nearly 25% of the world’s population is Muslim. That intention gets lost by focusing on one is. It might be better to reword the sentence: Nearly 25% of people in the world are Muslim.

Why is 25% of people are correct? The subject of this sentence is 25%. Fractions and percentages, like team and staff, can be either singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition following. In this case people is the object of the preposition of. We have already said that people is plural. Therefore, 25% becomes plural in meaning.

Example: Twelve percent of the list has/have volunteered to help with the fundraising.

The subject is twelve percent, which will be either singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition that follows. In this sentence, the object of the preposition is list, which is always singular. So the correct answer is has.

To learn more about subject and verb agreement, click here.

Due to the E-Newsletter's large readership, we are unable to respond to individual English usage questions.

Pop Quiz

Choose the correct verb in each sentence below. Scroll down to view answers.

1. The team is/are headed to the nationals since winning the state finals.

2. The mock trial team was/were happy with their presentations to the judge.

3. Nearly 25% of the population is/are Muslim.

4. Our staff meets/meet on Tuesday mornings to discuss customer complaints.

5. Our staff works/work hard to meet their goals and deadlines.

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Thanks to alert reader Rebecca F. who pointed out that underground is not the only word in the English language that begins and ends with und (Wordplay section of E-Newsletter of September 27, 2011). Rebecca noted that the word underfund also begins and ends with und.

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Pop Quiz Answers

1. The team is headed to the nationals since winning the state finals.
Team is being used as a cohesive unit so a singular verb is required.

2. The mock trial team were happy with their presentations to the judge.
Team is plural because separate presentations were given. Also, when the plural their is used, the implication is that the collective noun is being used as a plural.

3. Nearly 25% of the population is Muslim.
The word population is a collective noun that can take either a singular or plural verb, depending on the intention of the author. The intention here is to indicate that this percentage represents a single group.

4. Our staff meets on Tuesday mornings to discuss customer complaints.
Staff, a collective noun, is acting as a single unit in this sentence.

5. Our staff work hard to meet their goals and deadlines.
Their is a clue that staff is not acting as a unit. Therefore, the plural work is needed.

How do you know that work, not works, is plural? Think about which word you would use with he and which word you would use with they.

She works too hard for her age.
They work harder when the foreman is around.


by Eugenie A. Nida

We'll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes;
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese;
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?

Cows in the plural may be cows or kine,
But the plural of vow is vows, not vine.
And I speak of a foot and you show me your feet,
But I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?

If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?
If the singular is this and the plural is these,
Should the plural of kiss be nicknamed kese?

Then one may be that and three may be those,
Yet the plural of hat will never be hose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But we say mother, we never say methren.

The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim.
So our English, I think you all will agree,
Is the trickiest language you ever did see.

68 One-Minute English Usage Videos

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Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.


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