'The couple is' or 'the couple are'? Collective nouns

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. “The main consideration in skillfully handling them is consistency in the use of a singular or plural verb,” writes Garner’s Modern American Usage. “If, in the beginning of an essay, the phrase is ‘the faculty was,’ then every reference to ‘faculty’ as a noun should be singular throughout the whole.”

Good advice in most cases, but this isn’t always practical. Here's everything you need to know in my recent column.

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