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Here’s the strange thing. A singular collective noun is mostly treated as singular, but there are a few times—yikes!—when it can be treated as plural.

Collective nouns come in singular or plural forms.

Collective nouns

Most of the time we treat singular collective nouns as singular.

  • The family is happy to see you.
  • The Senate keeps talking about the same issue for days.
  • The band is tired.
  • The bank is launching new products.
  • The department stands behind your decision.
  • The company is failing.
  • The flock of birds is flying east. [Note: of birds is a prepositional phrase, not the subject]

In very few instances, however, a collective noun in its singular form takes a plural verb when keeping the collective noun singular is awkward.

Example: The family are arguing about the issue. Of course, most careful (and finicky) users would rather say, “The family members are arguing about the issue”—in this case, the noun becomes members and not family.

Here are other examples:

  • Sharon’s basketball team is playing at the semifinals. [= the team as a whole]
  • Sharon’s soccer team all have the flu. [= the individual team members]
  • The family is united on this matter. [= the family as one unit]
  • The family have different opinions on solving the problem. [= the individual members]

Confused? Not convinced? Then just insert other nouns into the mix or change the noun.

We can say: Sharon’s soccer teammates all have the flu. [Here, the subject becomes the plural teammates, no longer the collective noun team.]

Or we can say: The family members have different opinions on solving the problem. [Here, the subject becomes members, while the word family becomes an adjective describing members.]

Photo credit: Hokshop

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