Answers to Questions About Plurals

By Mark Nichol

Here are DailyWritingTips.com readers’ queries about plural usage, and my responses.

1. Is staff singular or plural?

Staff can be either singular or plural, though the singular form is preferred: “The staff is encouraged by the new policy” is correct. “The staff are encouraged by the new policy” is also correct but is better rendered “The staff members are encouraged by the new policy.”

“Staff members are encouraged by the new policy,” however, has a slightly different connotation; when staff is preceded by the, the implication is that the opinion is one of consensus. Without the, it’s assumed that the conclusion is based on a sampling, though that distinction would be clearer if the sentence read, “Some [or many, or another qualifier] staff members are encouraged by the new policy.”

2. “Is shingles — referring to the disease, not the roof covering — singular or plural?”

Shingles or any similar condition (hives, measles, mumps) should be referred to with a singular verb: “Shingles is more common in adults than in children.” If that seems awkward, you could write, for example, “Contracting shingles is more common in adults than in children.”

3. I am confused about something, specifically singular and plural usage when writing about music groups. For instance, I might write about the fictional music group Music Band: “At last night’s concert, Music Band was awesome!” I have been told it is more correct to say, “At last night’s concert, Music Band were awesome!” Which is more correct? Isn’t was more correct when referring to the band as a whole? And yet, almost every instance I’ve seen uses were instead of was, which just doesn’t sound right to me.

In American English, the verb should be consistent with the form of the name. Plural-style names (“the Beatles”) take plural verbs, and singular-style names (“the Who”) take singular verbs. In British English, both forms take a plural verb. (This post discusses these usages and the convention for references to sports teams.)

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9 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Plurals”

  • Sally Bahner

    What about the word troop(s)? I always thought troop was a collection of people. More recently newscaster are using it in an individual context — 5 troops were killed. It doesn’t seem correct to me.

  • Stephen POWELL

    I try to put myself in the position of someone learning English and trying to comprehend its variations and options.

    Many languages require the definite article before nouns.

    Which might make the following two sentences baffling at first:
    English is confusing.
    The English are confusing.

    Apologies, of course, to the inhabitants of that island nation on the other side of the Channel.

  • Phil Radler

    In reply to Sally Bahner: I’m with you. My dictionary defines the term as “a group of soldiers; a body of armed men”; that’s based on the Middle French troupe (from tropeau, “herd or crowd”). And like you, I’ve recently been hearing “troop” used as a synonym for “soldier” and it clangs on the ear like a rusty hammer striking a broken bell.

  • Julie R Butler

    Related to “staff” is the word “faculty.” Can it also be either singular or plural? “The faculty is/are encouraged by the new policy.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Julie:

    I would use the same approach with faculty that I do with staff: “The faculty is opposed to the new policy,” but “Faculty members are opposed to the new policy.” (The latter usage, however, is ambiguous — are all faculty members opposed, or are some faculty members opposed?)

  • Jeanne Neff

    Are we absolutely giving up on lie and lay? I see and hear respectable sources using lay regardless of the grammar of the sentence.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Sorry, but this is quite incorrect:
    “Many languages require the definite article before nouns.”
    Corrected:
    Many languages require the definite OR indefinite article before nouns.

    In English: Definite article: the. Indefinite article: a or an.

    The requirement to use or not use an article is often completely idiomatic, so do not try to apply some kind of logic to it.
    Also, the use of these is often idiomatic {the, my, your, our, their}.

    An example sentence from German:
    “Ich fahre mit dem Fahrrad in die Schule,” where “dem” and “die” are definite articles. This translates into English as:
    “I am riding my bicycle to school,” and this does not have any articles at all. On the other hand, there are examples in which German does not use an article, but English does.
    “Ich wasche mir die Hande mit warme Wasser.” This translates into English as:
    “I wash my hands with warm water,” or “I am washing my hands with warm water,” or “I do wash my hands with warm water,” none of which have any articles.
    In German, “waschen” is a verb that requires an indirect object here, and that is “mir” – which is ordinarily “to me”.

    Hence: Do not blame English for doing things arbitrarily. The same kind of idiomatic arbitrariness also exists in German, Frence, Swedish, Japanese, etc. Among the widely-spoken languages (by large populations), some scholars claim that Japanese is the worst.
    Here is an example: Japanese does not have a word for “yes”. The word “hai” actually means, “I hear you loud and clear.”
    I have been told that some Japanese businessmen told (through an interpreter) some foreign businessmen, “We will do the best that we can,” when their genuine answer was “NO”.

    An American woman tourist in Japan went to a restaurant and she asked for sugar in her tea. After some hesitation, the manager said, “We do not have any sugar.” Then the tourist changed her mind and she asked for coffee instead. She was cheerfully served sugar with her coffee!

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Phil Radler:
    Yes, that idea of using the word “troop” to mean “soldier” is truly grating on the ENTIRE nervous system. Furthermore, the word “troop” is practically obsolete in English. In military terminology, a “troop” was a group of cavalrymen, and nobody has ridden into battle on horses since World War I. There were Australian cavalrymen who fought for the British Empire in Palestine – against the Ottoman Turks. There might have been a few other cases.

    To top that off, “troops” should apply to Army soldiers, but the lazy speakers and writers want to use “troops” for Marines, airmen, sailors, and coastguardsmen. Furthermore, if you look at the Constitution carefully, it specifically mentions the “military and naval forces of the United States”. In other words, the writers of the constitution treated Army soldiers and Navy sailors and Marines separately. They all are NOT “troops”.

    Of course, aviation had not been invented yet in 1787, and the Coast Guard did not exist, yet. The U.S. Air Force has been allowed through the Elastic Clause (the Necessary and Proper Clause) of the Consitution without bothering to amend the Constitution. In the United States, there are airmen (or aviators) in the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the Army.

  • venqax

    The journalese term “troop” used for individuals has vexed a lot of conscientious English users. Now, as one writer observed, it’s been ratcheted up and you hear that 100 US forces have arrived. A single soldier has been upgraded from a troop to a force. Maybe it reflects the tremendous and growing fire-power that a single soldier wields now, but more likely it shows the just as rapidly declining and awful language habits of semi-literate journalists.

    Side note: the term troop is not obsolete in modern military terminology . In the US Army a troop is still a unit of cavalry—which can be armor or helicopters—roughly equivalent to a company in the infantry. Commonwealth armies still use the term, too. Troops still ride into battle, just not on horses so much.

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