Recently, one of my students asked me why her tutor had returned her work with a lot of words circled [in that angry way which only university tutors can]. The phrases which seemed to have caused this person the most outrage were ones such as ‘the company posted their profits’. Why should something as seemingly innocuous as this cause marking-pen overdrive?
Let’s look at the nice drawing above – it’s a family, ok? So what is your family like? OR….what are your family like? Hmmmm, both questions are acceptable grammatically, are they not?
I’m a sucker for Victoria [ITV Sundays 9pm – do NOT phone or text me, ok?]. In last week’s episode, one of the characters remarked that ‘my staff is arriving tomorrow’ [or something along those lines – please don’t quote me]. The point is, this person must consider their staff, of several if not hundreds of people, as a singular unit.
Back to my perturbed student. She clearly considered the company she was writing about to consist of a group of individuals and, therefore, used the plural to refer to it. The posh person in Victoria looked upon their staff as a unit which acted and functioned as one entity so used the singular.
This got me thinking about other similar collective nouns –
Government [is in session/are discussing?]
Team [had its best match ever/ played their best today?]
Crew [sails the ship/ sail for Africa]
I’m sure we could put our heads together and come up wth many, many more…but my tea’s cooking!
One golden rule, though. However you view the team/family/government/your staff – once you have decided on singular or plural, then be consistent in your choice throughout. The company posted its year-end profits and announced their floatation on the stock market…………no, no, no!
There are actually some rather pernickity rules, but this blog post from the OED is more than good enough for me:
However, don’t get in trouble with the Police – they are always plural apparently!