Staff is vs. staff are

A friend emailed yesterday asking why Microsoft tried to change “staff are” to “staffs are”. Here’s some background.

Imagine the following sentence.

The staff are going to go bananas when they find out.

Now taking aside whether you’re happy about the word “bananas” in the above sentence, my understanding is that most Brits will find this sentence perfectly fine, while many Americans will smart at it. And here’s why.

Americans are much more loyal to the rule that a group noun must be treated as singular. In the main, they will treat family, team, staff as singular and the verb will obey this rule. So the England team is without a manager, my family is so dysfunctional, and the staff is going to go bananas when they find out.

Meanwhile, British people deem those sentences to read awkwardly. So in the main, we’ll tend towards adopting the plural form of the noun: the England team are going to struggle in Euro 2012, my family are going on holiday without me, and the staff are going to go bananas.

Microsoft Word, whether it’s set to UK or US English, underlines “staff are” in green, flagging it as a potential grammar violation. It suggests “staff is” or staffs are”. The former bows to the American English strictness for treating group nouns as singular; the latter suggests you may be writing about shepherds’ staffs.

I expect that American English has its limits when it comes to the pluralisation of group nouns. “Number”, for example, is one that should strictly be singular, but I expect is treated as plural on both sides of the Pond. “A number of people is going out tonight” would, I expect, cause consternation regardless of nationality.

Posted by Dan, 5 April, 2012 under Grammar


  • The problem with this explanation is that the word “staff” can be singular or plural in American English. It depends on whether the staff is acting as a singular unit or individuals.

    Example of staff as a singular unit: “The maintenance staff is unavailable on weekends.” This is correct because we are referring to all staff members – no one is available.

    Example of staff as separate individuals: “Staff are arriving to work as early as 6:00 a.m.” This is correct because it means individual staff members arriving early, not all staff members acting as a unit.

    Microsoft Word does not make the distinction between the singular and plural uses of the word “staff.” It results in awkward phrasing, such as “Staff is supposed to call a supervisor when the equipment malfunctions.” This refers to actions required of individual staff members, not the function of the group as a whole.

    Posted by Deborah Gake, 26 April, 2012, 4:07pm

  • Surely if you follow the American style then it should read “The staff is going to go bananas when it finds out”?
    Otherwise you could think that the bananas are the ones who are going to find out.

    Posted by Geraint, 23 July, 2012, 10:30am

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