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 (my team is winning) and plural in British English (my team are winning). A singular verb is also used when the group acts together as a single unit (the committee has decided), but a plural verb is used when the group’s members act individually (the team have been practicing).

British vs. American usage

In American English, collective nouns (like team, family, government, committee) are usually treated as singular and used with singular verbs and pronouns.

Examples
  • Our team is/are playing its/their qualifier match today.
  • The government has/have increased the tax rates again this year.
  • The company has/have released its/their annual report.
  • The committee has/have appointed a new president.

Here are some examples from U.S. publications of singular verbs used with collective nouns.

Examples
  • The team has decided to audition five flawed quarterbacks for next year’s starting role.
    — “Low moments in sports poetry,” New York Times (May 13, 2013)
  • Many Americans aren’t confident that the government is capable of effectively addressing big problems.
    — “Tech is not representative government,” New York Times (July 7, 2022)
  • The committee has argued that claims of executive privilege are not valid for Bannon.
    — “Bannon says he will testify at public hearing,” Washington Post (July 8, 2022)

In British English, however, collective nouns are usually treated as plural.

Examples
  • The team are also trying to work out how cells can be motivated to build complex, functioning bodies.
    — “A research team builds robots from living cells,” Economist (Jan. 16, 2020)
  • “The government are very clear that they need to give protection where necessary, but without becoming protectionist.”
    — “Brexit: UK will apply food tariffs in case of no deal,” BBC News (Feb. 19, 2019)
  • “The committee 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 (Sep. 5, 2018)

Differences in meaning

A collective noun may take either a singular or a plural verb, depending on whether you wish to convey the sense of a group acting together as a single unit or of the members of the group acting individually.

Examples
  • Correct: The panel has reached a decision.
    The panel acting together.
    Correct: The panel are divided when it comes to letting kids sleep in your bed.
    When you speak of individuals disagreeing, the plural verb makes more sense.
  • Correct: The entire staff is on leave today.
    Correct: The staff are always at one another’s throats; it’s impossible for them to work together.
  • Correct: The crew has asked for better hours.
    Correct: The crew have mutinied, each for a different reason.

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.

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

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

Example
  • Incorrect: The committee has met four times this month to review their previous decision.
    a singular verb incorrectly followed by a plural pronoun
    Correct: The committee has met four times this month to review its previous decision.
    singular verb and singular pronoun (preferred in American usage)
    Correct: The committee have met four times this month to review their previous decision.
    plural verb and plural pronoun (preferred in British usage)

Plural names of collective nouns

A collective noun may have a plural proper name, such as the name of a sports team or a music band. Use plural verbs and pronouns with such a name, even in American English.

Examples
  • The Lakers is/are one of the most successful teams in the NBA.
  • The Beatles was/were an English rock band of the sixties.
  • The Yankees is/are playing today!

If a proper name is not plural, treat it like any other collective noun: use singular verbs in American English and plural in British, or singular to refer to the group acting collectively but plural for its members acting individually.

Countries as collective nouns

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

Examples
  • The Unites States is the second-largest English-speaking country in the world.
  • Is Australia an island or a continent?

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.

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.

Quick Quiz

Which is correct?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which of these constructions is preferred in American English?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which of these constructions is generally preferred in British English?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is correct?
Choose from these answers
All done!
Which is correct?
Choose from these answers
All done!

Did You Know?

When a noun clause is the subject, it is normal to use anticipatory it as the subject and move the real subject to later in the sentence (e.g., It’s great that you’re here).
Know more:Anticipatory It as Subject and Object in Grammar