My students often ask me whether they should use singular or plural verb when talking about collective nouns like «police», «government» or «family». «My family is happy» or «My family are happy»? The short answer is that both are correct — it just depends on whether you are looking at it from the British or American perspective!
First, let’s talk about what collective nouns are. Collective nouns, such as «police», «family», «audience», «team», refer to a group of people or things that are seen as whole unit.
Typically, in the English language, the verb and the noun must ‘agree’ — that is, if you are using a singular noun, the verb should reflect that (My dog is a Labrador. She loves swimming.), and similarly, plural nouns should be used with plural verbs (Labradors are energetic dogs. They were bred in Canada.) Easy, right? In theory, yes, but when it comes to collective nouns, things get complicated.
Technically, «family» is a singular noun. However, it refers to a group of people. This is why, according to the Oxford Dictionaries Blog, In British English it’s absolutely fine to treat most collective nouns as either singular or plural — you can say «my husband’s family is very religious» or «my husband’s family are very religious. In the US, however, it’s much more common to see singular verbs with collective nouns: «Our team is working on a new project».
So how do you decide what form of a verb to use?
Remember that «police» should always be treated as a plural noun (The police have to be informed when a crime is committed.)
If you are not sure, consult a dictionary. Good dictionaries (not translator apps like Google Translate) usually have some information about the grammar of a word. For example, if you look up «police» in the Cambridge dictionary, you`ll see the word «plural noun» next to it. In the Oxford Dictionary, the word family has «treated as singular or plural» written next to it.
Be consistent in your usage! If you decided that you would like to follow the US rules and treat collective nouns as singular nouns, don’t change your mind in the middle of an essay.
Family is very important. My family are always there for me.
Family is very important. My family is always there for me.
Family are very important. My family is always there for me.
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