Writing Tip Wednesday: Subject-Verb Agreement (Pt 3)

Dear Master’s Programs student,

If you missed SVA parts 1 and 2, you can find them here and here.  Otherwise, continue reading for the penultimate installment of the SVA miniseries!

Group or collective nouns often create a conundrum for writers.  Are they singular, are they plural?  The answer: it depends.

If the members of the group are acting as one whole unit, treat it as a single entity.Calvin-and-Hobbes-Dancing

For example, “The class is able to resume its lesson if the distraction is minor.

Here the subject “class” is acting together.  (The singular pronoun “its” also indicates that the subject is singular, so the verb should be singular as well.)

Compare with this example: “The class were arguing amongst themselves when the teacher walked in.” 

Here the same subject (“class”) is treated as plural because the sentence emphasizes that the individual members of the class each did something different (they were arguing, which necessitates more than one party or viewpoint.)  So we use a plural verb (“were arguing”) to agree with the plural subject, class.  (As in the first example the pronoun—themselves—gives a clue about the grammatical number, since “themselves” is plural.)

Even without these kinds of pronoun markers, you should be able to determine whether a collective noun is singular or plural.  Try the examples below [answers at the bottom of this entry]:

  1. This organization (is/are) unique because it caters to a native-born population whose primary language is not English.
  2. The staff (disagrees/disagree) with one another about the best way to prepare veal—or whether it was even an ethical food source in the first place.
  3. Faculty (has played/have played) a critical role in reshaping the admissions criteria in many institutions of higher education.

Happy writing!

James

Answers: (1) is; (2) disagree; (3) has played.

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