Common Mistakes in Business English

The “family is” or the “family are”?


Collective nouns are words that describe groups of people or things, e.g. “family” or “team”. Grammatically they are singular, but as they describe more than one individual, they may also take the plural form of a verb or use a plural pronoun.

For example, do we say “The family is arriving tomorrow” or “The family are arriving tomorrow”?

Is a family “it” or “they”?

The answer depends on whether you’re using British or American English, and on the emphasis you wish to make.

Very generally, in British English collective nouns are commonly treated as plurals, e.g. The government are debating the tax proposal. While in American English they take the singular verb form, e.g. The government is debating the tax proposal.

Usage of singular or plural also depends on whether you are emphasising the individuals in the group or the group as a single entity.

The below examples emphasise the individual members of the collective nouns rather than the collection as a single entity:

The management board were unable to agree with each other.
The team were walking through the gate in ones and twos.
The audience haven’t all arrived yet.
Not all the staff are happy about the new arrangements.

These examples emphasise the collective noun as a single entity:

The management board gave its consent.
The team was playing like a well-oiled machine.
The audience is ready for the concert to begin.
The staff accepts the new arrangements.

Other common collective nouns:



Police – always takes the plural: “Police are” Always refer to the police as “they”.

Number – when using the phrase “a number of” to mean “several” – use the plural.
E.g. A number of options were presented.
 A number of students have fallen ill.

When using the phrase “the number” to mean “the amount” – use the singular.
E.g. The number of protestors was astonishing.
The huge number of people arriving at the event has taken the organisers by complete surprise.