The committee “are”… singular noun, plural verb?

This week I thought I would put up a quick note on the “correct” verb form to use with so-called collective nouns in Standard English.

The issue is where an apparently singular noun takes a plural verb form in Standard English (actually, Standard British English, see below) – for example, “The Committee are considering your application.

Implicit in the word “committee“, in this sense, is that it is plural – made up of several people who would probably subsequently be referred to as “they“, a plural pronoun (“… and they are keen to inform you that you will be contacted shortly.“).

There are other occasions where the singular verb would be correct, namely when the collective noun is being considered as a unit, e.g. “The Committee is made up of seven women and three men including the Chair“. In this case, it would subsequently be referred to as “it” (“… and it was established for the first time over ten years ago.”).

Some people object to the former usage, arguing that regardless of whether it is acting as a collective or as a unit, the noun is fundamentally singular in grammatical form, and thus so should the verb be. This is interesting – because in fact this is the norm in most languages, and it is in fact specifically Standard British English which is the exception.

German, for example, always uses the singular verb regardless (“der Ausschuss ist…”). American and Australian English both tend to as well.

In fact, British English used to use the singular too. I noted a Pathe news reel from 1952 which used a singular where modern usage in Standard British English would be plural (it was in fact “Newcastle retains the Cup“). In fact, it is still not uncommon, in the Northern Ireland regional press, to see the singular verb preferred.

So, the use of the plural noun with the singular (collective) noun appears to be a British (perhaps even specifically Southern English) innovation in the last half-century or so. I must say I prefer to avoid it in my own writing (probably most obviously in my sports pieces, as British English now tends to use a plural verb with the names of sports teams, where American and Australian use the singular), but it is debatable.


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