Verbal Energy

Collective nouns and the squiggly green line

Are the grammar bots scaring us away from a long-established space-saving usage?

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Last week's little victory was confirming that the use of what we might call "singular their" in English goes back centuries. "Everyone has their own opinion about that," for instance.

I'm not saying you have to like it, dear reader. I'm just saying that this is the fact.

Now I've discovered, alive and well and living on the Internet, a rule I learned in school, but haven't heard invoked much recently: that (singular) collective nouns sometimes take plural verbs.

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"Our staff come from all over the world." There – I've written it. And Microsoft Word has thrown a squiggly green line under "staff come," which disappears if I add an "s" to "come."

Ah, but if I refer to a collection of individuals from all over who together make up "our staff," the plural verb is just right. When these individuals act as one, however, the singular verb is correct: "Our staff meets every Monday at 10 a.m."

Here's how the late Jane Straus, author of "The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation," put the question in her blog: "Do you use a singular or plural verb to match a collective noun such as team or staff? The answer is, 'It depends.' If these nouns are acting as a unit, use a singular verb."

But if, she goes on to say, "the sentence indicates more individuality, use a plural verb." Her example: "The team are eating with their families tonight." And Word, I can tell you, isn't any happier with "team are" than with "staff come."

This principle gets pushback from humans, too. "I respectfully disagree," one commenter on Ms. Straus's blog wrote. But Straus invokes the redoubtable Chicago Manual, which says these collective nouns "may take either a singular or a plural verb form," and that "A singular verb emphasizes the group; a plural verb emphasizes the individual members."

But how does this play out in the real world? Variously, as a quick Google News search on "staff" shows.

"Rep. Issa tells Crowley: Cincinnati IRS staff say direction came from Washington" is part of the headline on a CNN blog post about the scandal over tax-exempt status for nonprofit groups. Note the plural verb. It suggests multiple sources, rather than a singular staff speaking as one; and that strengthens the congressman's point.

"Modesto pitching staff delivers stellar performance" was the headline on a recent story about minor-league baseball. Three pitchers came to the mound in succession, but they arguably acted as one to defeat the other team, hence a singular verb.

And from the News-Herald of Michigan: "Students get emotional in honoring staff who made a difference in their lives."

The "staff," one imagines, contributed individually, not unlike Darrell Issa's interlocutors at the Internal Revenue Service. But Word's grammar gnomes aren't buying it. They've green-lined "who." They see "staff" as a singular "it," not a plural "they."

And look what happens in the body of the piece: "At Roosevelt High School there's an event that encourages the school's brightest scholars to show their appreciation to staff members who have meant the most to them, and at times it can get quite emotional."

People may reach for this "members" construction when they want to indicate multiple actors but lose their nerve before the squiggly green line. It would be a shame, though, to give up on collective nouns with plural verbs just because the grammar bots don't handle nuance very well.

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