LawProse Lesson #162: Singular or plural pronoun with an entity?

LawProse Lesson #162: Singular or plural pronoun with an entity?

Should you use a singular or plural pronoun when referring to an entity? A pronoun must agree in number with its antecedent. Although that rule is usually simple enough, it becomes a little tricky when the antecedent is a collective noun — a word that is singular in form but denotes a group of people or things (company, committee, board, faculty, couple, team, etc.). If the members of the group are acting as a unit, use the singular pronoun it or its. If the members are taken to be acting separately, use the plural pronoun they or their. Ex.: The committee met on Tuesday and announced its decision. Ex.: The committee rose from their seats after the meeting was over. Ex.: The corporation claims that it gave its employees notice of the policy change. Ex.: The jury can decide on their own whether to speak with the press after the trial. Ex.: The staff have used all their vacation days. Better: The members of the staff have used all their vacation days. (Recast the sentence to avoid the awkward-sounding singular noun with plural verb: staff have.) Of course, these same principles apply to pairing verbs with collective nouns. Apart from the desire for consistency, there isn’t an absolute right or wrong on this subject: sometimes collective nouns take a singular verb and sometimes a plural one. The trend in AmE is to regard the collective noun as expressing a unit; hence the singular pronoun and singular verb are the usual companions {the jury is confident in its verdict, the panel has issued its ruling, the board agrees that it needs to consider the mayor’s stance}. In BrE, the opposite habit is seen, where collective nouns tend to take plural verbs {the board have decided the issue} {Oxford were the winners of the boat race; Cambridge were the heroes}. LawProse has now concluded its Lesson #162. Further reading: The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style §§ 10.10 (a), (j), at 179-80 (3d ed. 2013). The Chicago Manual of Style § 5.31, at 210-11 (16th ed. 2010). Garner’s Modern American Usage 164 (3d ed. 2009) (s.v. collective nouns). Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 172-73 (3d ed. 2011) (s.v. collective nouns). William A. Sabin, The Gregg Reference Manual §§ 1019-1020, at 264-65, § 1049, at 282 (10th ed. 2005). Thanks to Ian A. Bardin and Mark Calkins for suggesting this topic.

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