Making subjects agree with verbs is a rather simplistic writing task; nonetheless, the English language has several rules that can make subject-verb agreement tricky. Today, we explore how tricky a simple task can be with collective nouns.
A collective noun refers to a group of people, such as a committee, council, jury, association, audience, executive board or class. Typically, subjects that include more than one person are considered plural; however, a few exceptions exist, including the collective noun. Though inclusive of more than one person, collective nouns are considered to act as one unit. Therefore, they should be treated as singular nouns.
The sentences below illustrate how to correct subject-verb disagreement for a collective noun, using “board” as an example.
Original Sentence: At the annual meeting, the BOARD of trustees designate a new chairperson, review policies and establish meeting dates for the upcoming fiscal year.
Since the board meets annually as one unit to perform the three actions in the sentence, the board is considered singular. Yet, the three verbs in the sentence are in plural form. This disagreement issue could be made for two reasons: a writer considers the board plural since it is comprised of multiple people, or the writer thinks the noun “trustees” (which is plural) to be the subject of the sentence since it’s closer to the first verb (“designate”). Regardless of the reason, the sentence is grammatically incorrect.
So, the verbs in the sentence need to change to singular form (singular verbs end in “s” while plural verbs do not end in “s”).
Edited Sentence: At the annual meeting, the BOARD of trustees designates a new chairperson, reviews policies and establishes meeting dates for the upcoming fiscal year.
To note, collective nouns can be considered plural if those in the group act individually rather than as a collective unit. When using collective nouns, a writer must determine whether the members of the group are acting as one or individually, then use the appropriate verb.
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