The couple is or the couple are?

The couple is going to purchase the house? Or the couple are going to purchase the house? Even after all my years of editing, I can still get tripped up trying to make verbs agree with collective nouns like “couple,” “team” and “majority.”

Collective nouns are singular in form, “a team,” but refer to a group of two or more people or things. In other words, they’re singular and plural at the same time. And since verbs are supposed to agree in number with their subjects — one cat is, two cats are — the roughly 200 collective nouns in our language cause a lot of confusion.


The family is gathering at the park. The family are all accountants.

The staff is well trained. The staff are experts in customer service.

The choir is excellent. The choir are arguing among themselves.

The majority is powerful. The majority are enrolled full time.

Sometimes collective nouns seem to make more sense as plurals, while other times they make more sense as singulars. When you’re trying to write grammatically, that seems like a problem. But it’s not, because the rule is: If you mean it as a plural, it’s plural. If you mean it as a singular, it’s singular.

In most cases, this hinges on whether the individuals in your collective are acting collectively — the orchestra is playing Tuesday — or they’re acting individually — the orchestra are tuning their instruments.

With collective nouns, consistency counts. Here's my recent column explaining how to master them.

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One Response to “The couple is or the couple are?”

  1. It has to be said: You're commenting on a fine point of grammar, but you're conjuring up wrong and bad sentences to try to explain them.
    First, you open with two sentence fragments.: "The couple is going to purchase the house? Or the couple are going to purchase the house?" No, everyone doesn't do it, yes, you did make a mistake. No, it's not just some question of writing style. Yes, even though you've gotten paid to do editing work.
    You followed up your opening errors with quotation marks around words that aren't a quotation.
    Your writing goes on to be consistently vague because you leave words out. I can only guess that you may be a youngster who grew up texting in the pre-speech-recognition era when kids decided it was too much trouble to thumb-type all the words.
    Most importantly, you wrote your piece for an American website, but you instructed its American readers to choose to use an England-only form of expression four times. It actually is simply wrong here in the U.S. Here are some examples: "The family are all","The staff are experts".
    No, that's not just my opinion, it's the opinion of countless reference books and textbooks. Thank you for trying, but please do fix those mistakes. They're mistakes.
    This leaves the question of what to do to fix yourself. You may think that I believe you should beat your brains out hammering away at reference books, but I couldn't possibly disagree with that approach more. It didn't work the first time. You may even be making mistakes because you overstudied.
    You need a steady diet of professional writers who do speak English correctly, and they have to be very, very good writers, or you won't read 'em. I hate to say it, but you won't find it in the work of The New York Times' new infestation of dopey, cheaper White kids. The Atlantic and The New Yorker aren't usually too bad, but I think you might actually love to read "Depth Takes a Holiday" or anything by Susan Gregory Thomas, esp. her "Broke-Ass Grouch" work.
    I'm not going to close by saying, "Good luck", I'm going to close by saying,"Get over yourself, even though people have paid you to edit, and get to work!"