Proofreading Tips: Is or Are? A Guide to Collective Nouns

Collective nouns are nouns that refer to a group of people or objects, including words like team, family, and crowd. But are they singular or plural? And how do you use collective nouns in a sentence? These are things you need to know as a proofreader. Read on to find out more.

Collective Nouns and Verb Agreement

The most common issue with collective nouns is whether to treat them as singular or plural. For instance, we might ask whether to use “is” (a singular verb) or “are” (a plural verb) following a collective noun.

The simple answer is to treat collective nouns as singular for the sake of subject–verb agreement, especially if your client is using US English. On this basis, collective nouns should be used with singular verbs:

The crowd is surging toward the exit.

Here, we use “is” (not “are”) because “crowd” is grammatically singular. And treating collective nouns as singular like this is a good starting point. As usual, though, English has a few tricks up its sleeve to catch out the unwary, so there are variations to this rule based on:

  • Differences between how US and UK English treat collective nouns.
  • Whether the group described is acting collectively or as individuals.

In addition, there are certain collective nouns that are always plural, just to keep you on your toes! To help you know what to look out for, we’ll offer some examples of all the above in the rest of this post.

Regional Differences

There are some differences between UK and US English when it comes to collective nouns. As noted above, US English treats collective nouns as singular in most situations. For example:

The crowd is surging toward the exit.

The government was interfering again.

The class always listens intently.

But UK English (and similar dialects) is more flexible. In most cases, collective nouns in British English can take singular or plural verbs:

The crowd is/are surging toward the exit.

The government was/were interfering again.

The class always listens/listen intently.

As a proofreader, you would not need to correct use of a plural verb with a collective noun in British English. However, you will still need to check that collective nouns are treated consistently. And if you see a sentence switch from singular to plural (or vice versa) when using a collective noun, you may need to make a correction. For example:

The company has no time for their customers.

The problem in this sentence is that “company” is followed by the singular third-person verb form “has,” but then the author switches to using the plural possessive adjective “their.” Ideally, this should be fixed for consistency. In UK English, this would mean either switching to a plural verb in the first part or using a singular pronoun in the second part:

The company have no time for their customers.

The company has no time for its customers.

Don’t forget, though, that only the singular version would be accepted in US English. This is why it’s important to consider the dialect your client is using (and the audience they are writing for) when making corrections!

Collective Vs. Individual Action

Another factor in whether to treat collective nouns as singular or plural, and one that applies in both US and UK English, is whether the members of the group are acting as a unit or as individuals.

When a group is acting as a unit (i.e., in unison or toward a single goal), then the logical choice is to treat it as singular. But if the members of the group are acting as individuals, then it makes more sense to treat the collective noun as plural. This is most obvious if we imagine a situation where the members of a team are at odds with one another. For instance:

The team are always fighting among themselves.

The team is always fighting among itself.

Here, while “team” is singular, the sentence clearly implies that the individuals within the group aren’t acting as a single unit (i.e., they are fighting with one another as individual group members, not collectively against something or someone else). And the clearest way to express this is to treat “team” as plural in this case, even in US English.

Adjectives Used as Collective Nouns

Where adjectives are used as nouns, they are always treated as plural (regardless of the context and dialect). This is because they refer to broad groups that do not act as one. The following examples illustrate this:

The injured were taken to the hospital.

The injured was taken to the hospital.

The unemployed often struggle to make ends meet.

The unemployed often struggles to make ends meet.

The rich have many privileges that the poor do not.

The rich has many privileges that the poor does not.

Note that in all of these cases, the subject is formed by adding “The” before an adjective. This is something to watch out for when proofreading so you can check that the correct verb form is used.

Collective Nouns that Are Always Plural

Finally, a few collective nouns are always treated as plural, no matter the dialect or the context. This is simply a matter of convention, with the most common example being “police”:

The police were called.

The police was called.

Other collective nouns that are always treated as plural include “cattle,” “poultry,” and “vermin”:

The cattle are resting in the yard.

The cattle is resting in the yard.

Our poultry are treated humanely.

Our poultry is treated humanely.

Vermin are notorious disease carriers.

Vermin is a notorious disease carrier.

It is therefore important to look out for terms like these when proofreading.

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