Group Nouns - “majority do” or “majority does”?

Another problem of subject-verb disagreement arises when the subject of the sentence is a group noun, also called a collective noun, that is, a word describing a bunch of people or things, such as group, team, majority, and many others.

The question inevitably arises: Does the collective noun group, team, or majority take a singular or plural verb? The answer, no doubt, will surprise many.

And the answer is?

Sometimes singular, sometimes plural.

The Rule

The collective noun takes a singular verb when you use it to refer to the group of people or things acting collectively as a whole, as a unit. Look at this group acting as a unit:

The team of surgeons has performed this operation on many occasions.

When the group acts as a unit, you must use a singular verb. But suppose the members of the group are necessarily acting individually. Suppose, from the sense of the sentence itself, the group could not possibly act as a unit; instead, all the members of the group are individually doing something. In this case, the collective noun takes a plural verb. Thus:

The team of surgeons have gone home.

Unless the surgeons are all bunking together, they cannot—as a group—go home. The verb, therefore, must be plural.

Example - “Majority”

Let’s take another example. Which of the following is correct?

The majority of courts has upheld the right of privacy found in Roe v. Wade.
The majority of courts have upheld the right of privacy found in Roe v. Wade.

Here the verb should definitely be the plural have upheld, for the courts did not get together and act as a group, as a whole, as a collective noun. Instead, they acted quite individually, incrementally over time producing a majority view.

Though it probably will come as a surprise, the collective noun takes the plural verb even without the plural-sounding prepositional phrase (of surgeons or of courts). Thus, the following sentences from The Oxford Guide to Writing at p. 768 show proper usage.

The team is leaving tomorrow.
The team are dressing for the game.

In the first example, the team as a unit will leave tomorrow. But in the second example, individual members of the team are individually dressing. The singular team does not wear one great big uniform.

Click page 2 below. Redesign the Sentence?

Frankly, I would try to avoid having to say such correct things for one simple reason: The majority think that the plural is incorrect. I would adhere to the rule but incorporate the prepositional phrase to make it sound plural. I would write, therefore: The majority of readers think that the plural is incorrect.

To totally get rid of the problem, you can easily rewrite the sentence with a plural noun. Though the following is correct, you might want to redesign the sentence:

The orchestra have gone home.

Instead, insert a plural noun and the appearance of a mistake goes away:

The orchestra members have gone home.

Again, The Rule

So let me briefly restate the rule:

When the collective noun acts as a single unit, it does so with a singular verb. But when the collective noun necessarily is acting through the individual acts of its members, it does so with a plural verb.

Here is a partial list of collective nouns: committee, company, clergy, group, family, flock, majority, people, band, and team.

And here are two more examples to flesh out the rule. Each of the following statements is correct:

The group of citizens wants to exert its influence.
The group acts as a unit.

The group of citizens were waiting to vote.
The citizens individually waited to individually vote.

The majority of Senators passes the resolution.
The majority acts as a unit.

The majority of Senators have made similar “fact-finding” trips.
They didn’t travel as a unit; they went individually.

Washington Post

The editors of The Washington Post know the rule. Consider this example of using a group noun in the singular:

A large majority of Senators—Thursday’s procedural vote went 70 to 30—appears to believe that NAFTA’s provisions on trucking across the Mexican border need not be implemented promptly. “NAFTA in Trouble,” The Washington Post, July 29, 2001, p. B6.

See the difference? When the group acts as a whole, the verb is singular. When the individual members of the group are acting individually, the verb is plural.

Later Pronouns

Another problem merits some attention. The rule of number shows up not only in verb forms but in later pronouns referring back to the collective noun. Make certain that you do not use both singular (verb) and plural (pronoun) references in the same sentence. The following are distinctly ungrammatical:

Wrong: The group of men wants to exert their influence.
Right: The group of men wants to exert its influence.

Wrong: The family wants to go on their vacation.
Right: The family wants to go on its vacation.


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Next: British Approach to Group Nouns

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