Are Collective Nouns Singular or Plural? “Team Is” or “Are”?

Summary

Collective nouns, which refer to groups like team, family, government, and committee, are usually treated as singular in American English and plural in British English.

Examples
  • American: Our team is ready for the playoffs.
    British: The team are in the finals.
  • American: The committee has made its recommendation.
    British: The committee are conducting a formal investigation.

Whether such nouns are used with singular or plural verbs also depends upon whether you are referring to the group as a single unit acting collectively or to the individual members of the group.

Examples
  • Correct: The board has decided to hire an internal auditor.
  • but
  • Correct: The team have been practicing their batting and fielding.

What are collective nouns?

Collective nouns, as the name suggests, refer to a group of persons, animals, or things. Examples include family, government, team, committee, panel, board, herd, flock, and company.

Most collective nouns can be considered either singular or plural, depending on meaning and style.

Examples
  • The committee has/have appointed a new president.
  • Our team is/are playing its/their qualifier match today.
  • The company has/have declared a dividend.
  • The crew has/have mutinied, and the ship now has no captain.

Singular or plural?

Whether to treat collective nouns, which refer to groups of individuals, as singular or plural depends on the following:

Differences in British and American usage

In American English, collective nouns usually take singular verbs and pronouns. Since the noun refers collectively to a single group of individuals, it is treated as singular.

Examples
  • The government has/have increased the tax rates again this year.
  • The company has/have released its/their annual report.

In British English, however, collective nouns are more often than not treated as plural. Since a group comprises multiple individuals, it is considered a plural noun.

Examples
  • “The government is/are very clear that it/they need to give protection where necessary, but without becoming protectionist.”
    — “Brexit: UK will apply food tariffs in case of no deal,” BBC News, February 19, 2019
  • “The committee is/are carrying out a formal investigation into Nyantakyi after he was filmed apparently accepting a ‘cash gift’.”
    — “Fifa extends Kwesi Nyantakyi suspension by 45 days,” BBC Sport, September 5, 2018

Differences in meaning

A collective noun may take a singular or plural verb, depending on whether you wish to convey the sense of a single cohesive unit or of many individuals making up a group.

Examples
  • Awkward: The panel is in disagreement over the verdict.
    When you speak of people disagreeing, a plural verb can sound more natural.
    Better: The panel are in disagreement over the verdict.
    The people on the panel disagree with one another.
  • Awkward: The crew has mutinied, each for a different reason.
    Since each refers to the individuals rather than the crew as a whole, using the singular verb has sounds wrong here.
    Better: The crew have mutinied, each for a different reason.
  • Awkward: The staff is always at one another’s throats; it’s impossible for them to work together.
    Don’t use the singular verb with one another.
    Better: The staff are always at one another’s throats; it’s impossible for them to work together.

If you intend to speak of the group as a single entity, use of the singular is clearly appropriate.

Example
  • The board has decided to appoint a new director.

At other times, you may need to convey the idea that there are individuals behind the faceless whole.

Example
  • The team have been practicing their batting, pitching, and fielding, and are all charged up to face their archrivals in the match on Sunday.

You could, of course, replace the collective noun with another, plural noun to have stricter agreement between the subject and the verb.

Examples
  • The players have been practicing their batting, pitching, and fielding, and are all charged up to face their archrivals in the match on Sunday.
  • The judges are in disagreement over the verdict.
  • The sailors have mutinied, each for a different reason.

Note that many would find such rephrasing unnecessary and consider “The team have been practicing” perfectly acceptable, especially in British usage.

Sometimes, animals that are part of a group also behave as individuals, which you may need to emphasize.

Example
  • In the presence of a predator, the herd separate and bolt in different directions.

As can be seen, you may treat collective nouns as either singular or plural, depending on what would sound more natural to your readers.

Caution

Do not mix singular and plural, especially within a single sentence, or the universe will implode.

Stay consistent in using either singular or plural verbs and pronouns. Don’t mix the two.

Examples
  • Incorrect: The committee have met four times this month to review its previous decision.
    a plural verb incorrectly followed by a singular pronoun
    Correct: The committee has met four times this month to review its previous decision.
    singular verb and singular pronoun
    Correct: The committee have met four times this month to review their previous decision.
    plural verb and plural pronoun
  • Incorrect: The family cheerfully argues among themselves at the dinner table, even with guests present.
    singular verb followed by plural pronoun
    Correct: The family cheerfully argue among themselves at the dinner table, even with guests present.
    plural verb followed by plural pronoun; preferred in British English
    Correct: Folks in this family cheerfully argue among themselves at the dinner table, even with guests present.
    plural noun with plural verb and pronoun: preferred in American English
  • Incorrect: The public demands an apology from the governor, who they believe has been cheating them all these years.
    singular verb followed by plural pronouns
    Correct: The public demand an apology from the governor, who they believe has been cheating them all these years.
    preferred in British English
    Correct: The people demand an apology from the governor, who they believe has been cheating them all these years.
    preferred in American English

Countries as collective nouns

When referring to the country itself, the singular is preferred in both British and American English.

Examples

However, governments, sports teams, and delegations are considered collective nouns. As with other collective nouns, the singular is preferred in American English and the plural in British English.

Examples
  • American: Canada has sent three representatives to the conference of nations.
  • American: Spain plays Brazil in the quarterfinal match later today.
  • but
  • British: Egypt want to ensure their interests are safeguarded at the African convention.
  • British: Croatia face France in the semifinals.

Exceptions

Collective nouns that are always plural

Some collective nouns are always plural.

Examples
  • The police has/have released a photograph of the suspect.
  • The cattle is/are stampeding through the valley.

Adjectives used for groups

When an adjective is used to denote a group of people, it forms a collective noun that is then treated as plural.

Examples
  • The rich get richer, while the poor get poorer.
  • The guilty have been punished.
  • The homeless need shelter from the cold.
  • The elderly deserve tax breaks to ensure their savings are not wiped out by inflation.

Collective nouns with this, that, a, every, and the like

If a collective noun, like committee, is used with a singular determiner (this, that, a, every, each), it is treated as singular in both British and American English.

Examples
  • The committee is/are carrying out a formal investigation.
    You may treat committee as either singular or plural, depending on the style you follow (British or American) and the meaning you want to convey.
  • but
  • This committee is/are carrying out a formal investigation.
    Using the singular determiner this makes the collective noun committee singular. Use is, not are.
  • Each committee has/have elected its/their own president.

Use of a singular determiner (this, every) places focus on the committee as a unit rather than on its constituent members.

Usage guide

When writing in American English, treat groups as singular (the team is, the board is), unless considering the individuals that make up the group. In British English, prefer the plural verb with collective nouns (the government are, the committee are), unless speaking of the group as a single unit. Also keep in mind that some nouns, such as police, are always plural.

Finally, remember not to use a singular verb with a plural pronoun, or vice versa, in the same sentence.

Quick Quiz

Which is correct?
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Which of these constructions is preferred in American English?
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Which of these constructions is generally preferred in British English?
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Which is correct?
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Which is correct?
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Did You Know?

The serial comma is usually optional.
Know more:Serial or Oxford Comma: When Is It Used?