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HeroicZach's avatar

Would you say "the staff was" or "the staff were"?

Asked by HeroicZach (193 points ) January 30th, 2010

I’m writing a sentence and I’m wondering how it should be structured:

“The staff was very helpful and informative” or “the staff were very helpful and informative.”

I’m confused because the staff is more than one person yet it is a singular noun. What do you think?

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39 Answers

holden's avatar

“The staff was”
You are refering to a collective body and use the singular form of the verb.

bigboss's avatar

yup yup. even though referring to many employees, staff itself is a singular word.

6rant6's avatar

I think this rule has been relaxed over the last forty years.

This is from: http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar/subjectVerbAgree.asp

Rule 14
Collective nouns such as team and staff may be either singular or plural depending on their use in the sentence.
Examples: The staff is in a meeting.
Staff is acting as a unit here.
The staff are in disagreement about the findings.
The staff are acting as separate individuals in this example.
The sentence would read even better as:
The staff members are in disagreement about the findings.

Jeruba's avatar

I agree with all the above. Professionally I still follow the rule cited by @6rant6.

[Edit] And I don’t agree with the comment below. When we use collective nouns (such as “family,” “group,” “class,” “team,” etc.) we do not need to know whether they consist of one person or more than one. A collective noun by definition speaks of more than one individual.

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

If there’s just one person in the staff then it’s was, if it’s two or more it’s were.

galileogirl's avatar

The staff was/the members of the staff were

TheLoneMonk's avatar

The staph was an infection.

ucme's avatar

The staff was aesthetically pleasing to my wife when erect.Yeah that sounds about right.

galileogirl's avatar

when it was erect or when they were erect?

ucme's avatar

@galileogirl Ahem I don’t do orgies.

dpworkin's avatar

In British English, were. In the States, was.

HeroicZach's avatar

Haha, thank you everybody. Your answers are quite entertaining :D

nicobanks's avatar

Was. “The staff” in that sentence is a singular body – a body made up of many individuals, sure, but a singular body all the same.

galileogirl's avatar

@nicobanks That’s what I thought @ucme meant when describing his staff.

morphail's avatar

In the US, the staff was
In the UK, the staff were

nicobanks's avatar

I really don’t think this is a British/American thing. Collective nouns call for singular verbs, plain and simple.

janbb's avatar

I’m with @Jeruba on this; can be “was” or “were” depending on the meaning of the sentence.

nicobanks's avatar

@dpworkin Care to provide a source? I’m looking for one myself (all my books are packed up – I’m almost sure Elements of Style would back me up but I can’t bring myself to source it without having it right in front of me. So anyway, I’m scanning the web, but if you’re so sure you likely have a source in mind, yes?)

@janbb If the meaning of the sentence calls for a plural verb, then the subject-noun should properly be “members” not “staff”:

The staff members are fighting amongst themselves.

The staff is in a meeting right now.

Those staff members were very rude to me.

The staff is extremely courteous there.

janbb's avatar

Just for the sake of prolonging the discussion (not because I have anything to prove), here’s what the The Scott Forseman Handbook for Writers has to say:

“With collective nouns used as subjects, you often have the option of treating a subject as either singular or plural, depending on how it is used in a given sentence

;...Sometimes you must decide which of two acceptable versions of a sentence seems better:

The bands feels that its music is an expression of artistic freedom.

The band feel that their music is an expression of artistic freedoom.”

(Scott, Forseman, 1988, p.296–297)

P.S. I think the British – American argument is a MacGuffin.

nicobanks's avatar

@janbb Are you sure you copied that down correctly? First there’s a plural noun (bands) with a singular verb (feels), then there’s a singular noun (band) with a plural verb (feel). Even taking into consideration the current conversation, those can’t be right!? I mean, forget the confusion of whether “band” or “staff” is singular or plural, “bands” certainly is plural and deserves a plural verb… ???

However, “band” is a great example of what we’re talking about because it’s one people are more familiar with, and really supports my argument because it is a singular noun composed of many parts: it’s either “the band feels” or “the band members feel.”

janbb's avatar

Shit – typo; it’s suppposed to be “band” in each case and an example of how the collective noun can be used with either singular or plural verb depending on the meaning. So what is being said is that you can use the collective noun either way depending on the sentence. However, I do agree with you that using band members does make for greater clarity.

nicobanks's avatar

@janbb Ah, thank God. Typos I can accept, but it truly freaked me out to think that was in a published grammar handbook!

Okay, I can also accept your rule… but I think it is a lazification of correctness! (ha)

nicobanks's avatar

Thank you morphail.

Morphail’s source points out the difference between “notational” and “formal” agreement, a difference which supports janbb’s source (above); and, having unpacked my Strunk & White I can also chime in: while the default in these circumstances appears to be to use a singular noun, it is suggested that the meaning of the sentence can have an impact. (The example given is the contents of a jar, which can be singular – if the jar is filled with jam, for instance – or plural – if the jar is filled with, say, marbles.)

I thoroughly cede now that, when it comes to situations like this topic, the meaning of the sentence does have an impact on the form.

I still say this is not an American/British thing.

morphail's avatar

@nicobanks Collective singular nouns often take plural verbs in British English, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, and presumably they’ve done some research and know what they’re talking about.

nicobanks's avatar

@morphail Oh, I didn’t see that in there. Was that on the same page? Did they say this in relation to American usage?

ninahenry's avatar

“Staff” is just short for “member(s) of staff” – so think of it this way:

“The members of staff were”
“The member of staff was”

You can just write it in full to avoid confusion. The noun “staff” is usually perceived as a plural noun, as there’s usually more than 1 member of staff, but it can mean either. As long as you use it in the singular form (“staff was”) to mean 1 person and in the plural form (“staff were”) to mean more than one person you are using the noun correctly.

morphail's avatar

@ninahenry No. As has already been pointed out, “staff” is a collective noun, and can take a singular or plural verb depending on whether it is considered as a whole, or whether it is refers to members of the group considered as individuals. It has nothing to do with the number of people in the group.

ninahenry's avatar

That is what I tried to say – as long as you use the verb in the singular form to mean 1 person and in the plural form to identify more than 1 person you’re fine.

morphail's avatar

@ninahenry Then I don’t understand what you’re saying. You can use the singular verb whether there is one person or 100 people in the group. The singular verb is used when the group is considered as a whole, no matter how many people are in it. I suppose that when the plural verb is used, there is always more than one person in the group, but I don’t know for sure because I use singular verbs with my collective nouns.

ninahenry's avatar

In that case shouldn’t we always say “The staff was”?

morphail's avatar

@ninahenry In what case? I’m so confused now. I think it’s nicely explained in the two links I’ve already posted.

Poystein's avatar

With reference to one of the most reliable grammars around, “Longman grammar of spoken and written English”, I can only say that there appear to be many misconceptions in this thread, both as regards collective nouns in general and the noun staff in particular: “The word staff is exceptional in that plural concord is by far the more frequent option… Staff differs from other collective nouns in combining with numerals and quantifiers such as all and some, and in being able to occur without determiners. We may conclude that staff behaves very much like s-less plurals of the type police and people”.

GentlemanJim's avatar

Without exception in the UK when staff is used as the subject of the sentence it is assumed to be an s-less plural, therefore, “My staff are all very helpful.” However, when it is the object of a sentence it can be a collective noun or a plural. Consider that both of these sound correct: “I have a staff of 16 in my department”, and “The allowances my staff receive vary greatly depending on length of service.” The problem is that the word has two meanings, one implying the body collective, the other the collection of members.
However, I cannot see that the common American usage of “the staff is” can possibly be correct.

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