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.

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