For the question How many people are in your family? a typical response is My family have five people. A native speaker intuitively sees this as incorrect, even though they may not be able to tell you why. But in this case, My family has five people, would have been the correct response. But why? Families have more than one person, right? Nothing seems to confuse students more than choosing the right singular or plural verb to use collective nouns. What makes it worse is that depending on the situation, you can often choose between both. Take a look at the example below: 

The team is playing a football match.  

The team are eating sandwiches for dinner.

Are you able to figure out why we use the singular verb ‘is’ for the first sentence and ‘are’ for the second? If not, don’t worry. Take a look at our tips below to gain a better understanding of when to use each type of verb with collective nouns.

Definition of a collective noun and some examples

A collective noun is a noun that is made up of more than one person, animal, place, idea or thing. Family, for example is a collective noun. It stands for one unit or group but consists of more than one person.

Here are some more examples of collective nouns: family, team, jury, committee, organization, class, herd, army, council, group, audience, panel, board, flock, staff, choir, orchestra. While the above list doesn’t include them all, you get the general idea.

Now, how can we better determine when to use a plural verb with our collective nouns and when to use a singular verb?

General rules

Collective nouns + Singular verbs

We use singular verbs with collective nouns when we think of the noun as a single, impersonal unit. This means that each member in the group is doing the same thing. There are no individually different actions occurring within the group. Every member is acting in unison and the unit itself is being used in an impersonal context. Let’s check the following example:

My family is going on holiday for Christmas.

Here the collective noun family is quite impersonal. Everyone is a part of the same unit and doing the same thing, going on holiday. We are also referring to the group of people as a single unit, and not a group of individual people. Therefore, we’re going to use the singular verb ‘is’.  Now move to another example:

The herd of zebra is running for safety.

Every zebra in the herd is doing the exact same thing. They are running together as one unit. Therefore, we’re going to use the singular verb ‘is’.

Collective nouns + plural verbs

We use plural verbs with collective nouns when we think of the group as individuals, all doing different things, or we want to emphasize the differences that are occurring in the group. Let’s have a look at the following example:

The family are doing different jobs around the house today.

Here each individual member of the family is doing something different. Therefore, we’re going to use the plural verb ‘are’. Let’s look at another example from the introduction.

The team are eating sandwiches for dinner.

Here again, we think of the team as a group of individual people. They probably all have different kinds of sandwiches and they all aren’t eating the exact same way at the same time. Therefore, we’re going to use the plural verb ‘are’.

Pro tip

We often use plural verbs when we talk about collective nouns doing people-like things including, eating, wanting & feeling for example.

See also

External links