In our recent quiz, the word choice that most respondents struggled with was this one:
Whether a majority of Republican voters [deem / deems] Donald Trump electable remains to be seen.
Deem is the correct answer, and, as promised, this week’s post explains why.
The word that wreaks havoc in the sentence above is the collective noun majority. Although singular in form, a collective noun denotes a group, or collection, of people, animals, objects or ideas. Other examples of collective nouns you might regularly encounter in business writing are team, faculty, staff, board, committee, number and company.
Collective nouns aren’t inherently problematic — it’s trying to match them with the proper verb and pronoun forms and then using those forms consistently that gives people fits. Deciding whether a collective noun takes a singular or plural verb is particularly maddening because the answer usually is, “It depends” — primarily on the context and meaning but also on whether you’re using American or British English.
The tendency in American English is to use singular verbs with collective nouns: the team is working, a committee plans to meet. In British English, it’s the other way around — collective nouns almost always take plural verbs (the board have resolved, the company have hired).
The good news is, there’s no hard and fast rule on the subject. So if you can justify your decision for going with a singular or plural verb in the first instance, you really can’t be wrong. But you need a sound basis for making your case, AND you need to apply whatever form you’ve chosen consistently.
The most common missteps with collective nouns relate to inconsistent usage. If you decide the collective noun should take a singular verb and pronoun, don’t do this:
The committee has submitted their report.
Has is singular and requires the singular pronoun its: The committee has submitted its report. Apply that same consistency throughout the document.
In deciding whether to use a singular or plural verb (or pronoun), you may find the following guidelines helpful:
- When the collective noun refers to the group as a whole, use a singular verb and pronoun:
The board just voted on the budget and is drafting its recommendations.
Here, the board is acting as a single unit in voting on the budget, so the singular verb (is drafting) and pronoun (its) are called for.
- When the group members are acting individually (each doing their own thing, thus creating multiple units), use a plural verb and pronoun:
The multinational corporation’s staff admit they embezzled company funds for years before being caught.
The scenario that a few members of the large staff, rather than the entire staff, stole company funds is far more likely. Because the renegades acted on their own and not in concert with the whole unit, the plural verb (admit) and pronoun (they) are the best choices.
If the precedes a collective noun, the verb is usually singular.
When a precedes the collective noun, and especially if of follows the noun, the verb is usually plural.
Applying these tips to the question at the beginning of this post, the plural is correct:
Whether a majority of Republican voters deem Donald Trump electable remains to be seen.
That choice passes muster with the guidelines above as well: Trump’s ability to secure the Republican nomination hinges on whether more people vote for him than against him. Because the voters are acting individually, the plural is correct.
Let’s say Trump secures the nomination (which is no longer a remote possibility). Which of the following is the better choice?
The majority of Republican voters [has / have] deemed that Donald Trump is in fact electable.
Discuss in the comments below.