Perhaps you’ve had this experience: you’re talking with a friend about your family, and they ask something general. But when you reply with a quick description, are you referring to one family, or are you talking about several individuals?
The need for subject-verb agreement will help determine the verb form you use, so is it “My family is” or “are”?
Both “My family is” and “My family are” are correct in British English, while “My family is” is most common in American English. This is because “family” is a collective noun, and American English generally treats collective nouns as singular, while British English treats them as plural.
Let’s take a look into collective nouns with some specific examples from different dialects of English around the world and then dive into subject-verb agreement.
Verbs and Collective Nouns
Collective nouns are a grey area when it comes to conjugating verbs because native speakers using different English dialects conjugate collective nouns differently (source).
In some dialects, collective nouns generally act as third-person singular (like “he/she/it”), while in other versions of English, a collective noun acts as third-person plural (like “they”).
The third-person singular option is the most popular in American English, while British, Australian, and Indian English all favor using collective nouns as third-person plural (source). Let’s look at what that means with a definition and some examples.
What Are Collective Nouns?
Collective nouns are nouns we use to refer to a whole group of people or things with just one word. For instance, some popular collective nouns include “family,” “government,” “committee,” and “staff.” All of these words describe a group of people.
Using collective nouns can be difficult because it’s hard to determine if the noun is singular or plural. Take “government,” for example; you know that it refers to one government, but the government is actually a group of many people. So, should you use a singular or plural verb with “government”?
The answer relies on the preferences of the dialect of English that you’re speaking.
“Family” Is a Collective Noun
You can use the word “family” as both a singular and a plural subject in British English and sometimes in American English because “family” is a collective noun (source).
You should also be careful about consistency when you use the collective noun “family.” This means that if you use “family is” in one sentence, you should continue to use “family is” throughout the whole composition or conversation. The same goes for using “family are” consistently in your writing and speaking.
Remember, “family” is also a countable noun. This means that you have to pay attention to how many families you are mentioning. If there are many families in the context, you should use the plural form of the verb.
For example, you can say, “My family is friendly,” or you can say, “My family are friendly.” British English will favor using the latter if you’re referring to the individual members of your family, but American English generally shies away from this.
However, if you say, “The families in my neighborhood are friendly,” you must use “are” in either dialect because you are referring to many families. In this example, the subject is definitely plural and must take the plural form of the verb to have correct subject-verb agreement.
Notional Agreement in American English
While notional agreement is more common in British English than American English, there are situations where American English might use a plural verb with the collective noun “family.”
One instance would be where the principle of proximity comes into play. This is when we have two nouns, one singular and one plural, and the verb must agree with the nearest noun.
- A family of rowdies are ruining our peaceful evening.
- That family of rowdies is ruining our peaceful evening.
American English will also use the plural “are” when “family” functions as an adjective describing the plural noun “members.” In this way, the sentence emphasizes the individuals that make up the family.
- My family members are regulars at the local restaurant.
More Examples With Collective Nouns
If you’re in the UK, you’ll probably hear, “The government are working on a new project downtown.” But if you’re in the US, you’re much more likely to hear, “The government is working on a new project downtown.”
The same is true with other verbs and helping verbs, too. In the UK, they’ll say, “The committee have made a decision about the new school district.” However, individuals in the US would say, “The committee has made a decision.”
In this example, the same general rule applies: collective nouns usually act as plural in British English, while they are generally singular in American English.
Many collective nouns are also countable, so you have to be careful when you’re talking about many groups of people. For example, if you say, “The committees have made a joint decision,” you must use the plural form “have.” This is because your subject is absolutely plural in this example.
What Is Subject-Verb Agreement?
Essentially, subject-verb agreement means that the verb in a sentence can change based on the subject of the sentence. This is most clear when you’re using the verb “to be” or when you’re using verbs in the simple present tense.
Subject-verb agreement also impacts some helping verbs like “to have” in the perfect tenses (source).
Verbs Match the Subject
The verb that you use in a sentence should match its subject. In English, you conjugate verbs based on the noun’s number, which means that you change the verb according to whether the noun is singular or plural (source).
The most common example is in the simple present tense: for a regular verb, when the subject is third-person singular (like he/she/it), you should add -s at the end of the verb. You’ve probably practiced this conjugation a thousand times, or you recognize when it’s incorrect.
Of course, this means that you need to know whether the noun is singular or plural before you choose the form of the verb. Here are a few rules to remember when you want to determine if a noun is singular or plural:
First, countable nouns can be singular (he/she/it) OR plural (they): if the countable noun ends with -s, then it is usually plural.
Next, noncount nouns always act like a singular noun; you should conjugate them like “he/she/it.”
Finally, as we’ve discussed, collective nouns like “family” can be singular OR plural in British English, while it’s almost always singular in American English.
For more on the difference between British and American English, read our article on “mom” vs. “mum.”
The essential principle to remember is that the verb changes according to the number of the noun. So, figuring out if the noun is singular or plural is the first step to getting the subject-verb agreement correct every time!
What About “You”?
“You” is a tricky word in English because it can refer to either one person or many people. Even though the word “you” doesn’t change in spelling or pronunciation, its number — that is, whether it’s singular or plural — changes.
The only way to understand if the pronoun “you” is singular or plural is to look at the context.
This explanation might still leave you asking whether it’s “How many of you is” or “are?” In short, it will always be “How many of you are” because with “how many,” the “you” is always plural. Plus, we always conjugate “you” with the “are” form of the verb “to be.”
Whether “you” is singular or plural doesn’t change the verb that it takes. For example, you always say “you are” and never “you is.” So, whether you’re talking to a whole group of people or just one friend, you should always say “you are.”
This is also true if you’re using “to be” as a helping verb, like in the present continuous tense.
For instance, you should say, “You are reading an interesting article about subject-verb agreement right now.” Here, “are” is the correct helping verb because it is the form of “to be” that comes after “you” when you talk about the present time.
Verbs and Noncount Nouns
When it comes to subject-verb agreement, knowing the difference between countable and noncount nouns is important because this determines whether your subject is singular or plural (source). Let’s look specifically at noncount nouns since they have some extra rules for conjugating verbs.
Noncount nouns always act as a singular subject, like “he/she/it.” That means that if you’re using a noncount noun with the simple present tense, you should use “is” or the version of the verb with the “-s” at the end. Here are some examples with some common noncount nouns:
- Water covers more than 60% of the earth’s surface.
- Bread isn’t a popular food in many countries in East Asia.
- Does this information surprise you?
From these examples, you can see that the noncount noun takes the singular version of the verb in the simple present tense. The verb “to be” also changes in the past tense, and noncount nouns act like “he/she/it” in the past tense as well.
This is also true for helping verbs that change according to number. This means that noncount nouns should take “has” (not “have”) when you’re using the present perfect tense “is” in the present continuous tense and “was” in the past continuous tense.
Which Is Correct: “Is” or “Are”?
If you’re having trouble choosing between “is” and “are,” ask yourself these questions:
First, “Is the subject a countable noun, or is a noncount noun? Then, if the subject is a countable noun, you need to determine the number of the subject: is it singular or plural?
If the subject is a singular countable now, it will use “is.” If the subject is a plural countable noun, it will use “are.” If the subject is a noncount noun, you’ll use “is.”
Next, ask yourself, “Is the subject a collective noun?” Then determine if the collective noun is singular (like “family”) or plural (like “families”).
If the subject is a singular collective noun, you can use “is” or “are” in British English, but you should stick to “is” for American English. If the subject is a plural collective noun, you must use “are” because this subject is definitely plural.
With these handy guidelines, you can get the subject-verb agreement correct every time!
“How Many Is” or “How Many Are?”
“How many” is a question that we always use with the plural form of a countable noun. This means that “How many” usually comes with a noun that ends with -s. Check out these examples for a better look at how it works:
- How many minutes are left until the lunch break?
- Do you know how many times he has visited this museum?
- I’m not sure how many tomatoes are in the fridge.
Since “how many” always comes with a plural countable noun, you should always use the plural form of the verb in those cases. That means that the correct form of the question is “How many are.”
If you’re using “how many” in a noun clause, you should use “how many” with the plural form of a countable noun and then the plural form of the verb. So, the formula looks like this: “How many” + (plural countable noun) + “are.”
“Many” vs. “Much”
One word that you might frequently confuse with “many” is the word “much.” These words have similar meanings, and you will often see them with the question word “how.” The grammar for these words is different, though.
The word “many” always comes with a plural countable noun, but the word “much” comes with a noncount noun. Check out these examples:
|“MUCH” + NONCOUNT NOUN
|“MANY” + COUNTABLE NOUN
|How much water did you drink yesterday?
|How many liters of water did you drink yesterday?
|How much salt should we put in the soup?
|How many tablespoons of salt should we put in the soup?
|Do you know how much time is remaining for the exam?
|Do you know how many minutes are remaining for the exam?
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
From these examples, you can see that while “many” and “much” have very similar meanings, their usage is different. Using “many” and “much” depends on the kind of noun that comes next.
The word “family” is a collective noun, which means that you can use it as either a singular noun or a plural noun. Usually, one will sound more accurate based on the dialect with which you’re most familiar. However, American English generally views collective nouns as singular.
Understanding collective nouns is important for subject-verb agreement because the form of the noun affects the verb form. Here, we explored different rules that inform countable nouns, noncount nouns, and collective nouns.
Remember, the noun’s number is the most crucial feature for subject-verb agreement in English!