Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

In your writing, it is important to be mindful of subject-verb agreement. A singular noun corresponds to one form of a verb, while a plural noun correponds with a different form of a verb. He chooses, but they choose. Joan runs, but the cats run. This can be complicated with the introduction of collective nouns. These are words that describe a group (plural), but have the appearance of being singular.

Examples of collective nouns include words like class, audience or committee. These are groups of people, consisting of individuals acting as a single collective. In addition to people, collective nouns can be applied to objects, ideas, and even groups of animals. The idea is that while there are multiple components, the group as a whole is being treated as if it were a single unit.

Given this, the assumption is that you should be applying the equivalent of a “singular” verb form in tandem with a collective noun. This can be true under many circumstances and sentence structures.

  • The green team is winning.
  • The audience was captivated.
  • The herd migrates thousands of miles.

In all of these examples, all the members of the group are acting together in unison. All of the players in the green team are winning, so the green team is winning. All of the audience members were captivated, so the audience was captivated. We are emphasizing the uniformity of the group.

When we want to emphasize the individual members of the group (and how they are different from one another), we should turn to the plural form of the verb and pronoun.

  • The class get their grades on Monday.
  • The staff disagree on many issues.
  • The family wear different colors.

If I were to use “gets” and “its” instead of “get” and “their” in the first example, it would imply that the class is getting marked as a whole. It would imply that the entire class gets one grade, rather than each student getting his or her own grade. It’s a matter of structure and context.

All this being said, standards and conventions can sometimes override these rules. It sounds correct to say that the “Miami Heat are going to the playoffs,” even though the Heat is a single team, acting as a unified whole. Given the above rules, you’d think that the “Miami Heat is going to the playoffs” would be more acceptable.

While this may be because other sports teams are plurals (e.g., Vancouver Canucks, New England Patriots, and so on), we are still treating the team as a singular. “The Seattle Mariners is a baseball team” just seems odd, don’t you think?