Choosing agreeable verbs for collective nouns

Nouns and verbs must “agree” in English. But the difference between “formal” and “notional” agreement is a contentious topic.


The Monitor’s copy editors needed to make a difficult call on a photo caption. The choices were: “A pair of panels decorated with thousands of seeds mark the entryway” or “A pair of panels decorated with thousands of seeds marks the entryway.” Whichever they chose, some readers would object, because these sentences highlight a contentious topic in English grammar: the difference between “formal” and “notional” agreement.  

Nouns and verbs must “agree” in English. If the subject of a sentence or a clause is singular, its verb must be too (“he works”); if the subject is plural, so is its verb (“they work”). Most of us do this intuitively, although speakers whose first language doesn’t have this sort of agreement (Chinese and Japanese, for example) might have to remind themselves of the rule in English.

Sometimes, though, it’s not so obvious. Let’s say the subject of your sentence is a crowd. That’s a singular noun, so agreement would seem to demand a singular verb: “A crowd of people was at the party.” It might seem more natural, though, to say “A crowd of people were at the party.” Neither of these sentences is wrong, per se; they simply abide by the rules of the two different types of agreement. The sort of noun-verb match we’ve been talking about is formal agreement (“A crowd was”). Notional agreement, in contrast, has the verb reflect how the speaker is thinking about the subject. Since a crowd contains many people, it is acceptable to use “were.” In essence, the verb agrees with the meaning of the sentence. 

Notional agreement – also called “notional concord” and “synesis” – frequently comes into play when the subject is a collective noun like crowd, which is singular in form but refers to more than one person. If you are talking about a pair, trio, team, faculty, mob, multitude, group, and so on, your verb can be singular or plural, depending on what you want to emphasize about your subject. A singular verb suggests unity, thinking of the collection “as a unit,” as Garner’s Modern English Usage explains. For example: “The pair of shoes is getting old.” A plural verb, in contrast, stresses plurality, and the individuality of each member: “The pair were happy on their honeymoon.”

Returning to our first example, we can see that “A pair of panels marks” and “A pair of panels mark” are both correct, according to formal and notional agreement, respectively.  

In the end, the editors rewrote the caption and got rid of the potentially contentious issue. They went with the inarguable “A panel marks,” since the photo only showed one of the panels anyway. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Choosing agreeable verbs for collective nouns
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today