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English Vocabulary

Singular nouns with plural verbs

Groups of people

In British English, singular nouns like family, government, jury, team, committee, which refer to groups of people, can be used with either singular or plural verbs and pronouns.

  • The team is/are going to win.

Plural forms are common when the group is being regarded as a collection of people doing personal things; and in these cases we use who, not which, as a relative pronoun. Singular forms are common when the whole group is being thought of as an impersonal unit. Note that in these cases, we use which as a relative pronoun.

  • The committee has announced its decision. (The committee is regarded as an impersonal unit.)
  • The committee are divided on this issue. (The committee is regarded as a group of individuals.)
  • The average Indian family has 4.2 members. It is small and richer than 20 years ago.
  • My family have decided to move to Mumbai.

When a collective noun is used with a singular determiner (e.g. a/an, each, every, this, that), singular verbs and pronouns are common.

  • The team are full of enthusiasm.
  • A team which is full of enthusiasm has a better chance of winning. (More natural than A team who are full of )

Examples of collective nouns which can be used with both singular and plural verbs in British English are: bank, family, party, mob, crowd, team, flock, herd, army, fleet, jury, nation, committee, government, firm, public, choir, school, class, jury, staff, club, ministry, union etc.

In American English, a collective noun is almost always treated as singular. Note that family is an exception to this rule. It can have a plural verb. Americans often use plural pronouns to refer to collective nouns.

  • The team is full of confidence. They are going to win.
Plural expressions with singular verbs

When we talk about amounts and quantities we usually use singular determiners, verbs and pronouns, even if the noun is plural.

  • Where is that ten pounds I lent you? (NOT Where are those ten pounds I lent you?)
  • Twenty miles is a long way to walk.
  • Six months was a long time to be away.
  • Fifty dollars is too much to lose.

Two singular nouns joined by or takes a singular verb.

  • Petrol or kerosene is used.
  • Jam or butter was not available to the prisoners.

When a singular noun and a plural noun is joined by or, the verb agrees with the nearest noun. Note that in these cases, it would be better to use the plural noun second; then a plural verb must be used.

  • Bullets or a bomb is not allowed on the plane.
  • A melon or grapes are suitable.
Singular indefinite person

They/them/their is often used to refer to a singular indefinite person who has already been mentioned. This is common after each, every, either, neither, someone/somebody, anyone/anybody, nobody/none, whoever, and no.

  • If any of your friends is interested, tell them to contact me.
  • If anybody calls, take their name and address.
  • Somebody left their umbrella behind yesterday.
  • Nobody came, did they?

This use of they/them/their is convenient when the sex of the person referred to is unknown.

 

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