January 22, 2009

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Collective nouns – singular or plural & compliment and complement

Posted in collective nouns, redux at 7:32 am by dlseltzer

It’s been quite a week. We have a new president. We saw the old president leave. The Steelers made the Super Bowl. After the Inaugural concert and the Inaugural speech and benediction, there seems to be a great sense of relief and hope that is not diminished by our recognition of the tough times ahead. So back to the WLUT, where we regretfully move from the sublime to the mundane and start off with some prosaic issues about grammar.

Tip 1: Collective nouns: singular or plural?

Should collective nouns be treated as singular or plural?

The answer, of course, since English usage is rarely straightforward, is both.

Let’s start with the basics, just what is a collective noun? This is the easy part. A collective noun is the word used for a group of people or things. Examples include:

couple, jury, army, team, government, flock, swarm, number, herd, crowd

There are lots more. They always mean more than one so they should be treated as plural words, right? Not so fast. And certainly not so easy. The answer is: it depends.

Whether you use a plural or singular verb form with a collective noun depends on a couple of things. If you hail from Britain, you most likely use the plural form of the verb.

The team are headed for the play offs.

In the US, we use the singular verb form more frequently.

The team is headed for the play offs.

The British construct (the team are) sounded so odd to me, that I decided to check with our resident expert, Derek Angus, who says:

“The team ‘are’ sounds just fine to me. In Britain, because we hear so much American on TV and such, either is probably acceptable.”

So that’s the word on the usage across the waters.

You also need to consider the intent of the word. If the noun is referring to a unit, you would use the singular verb form.

The jury is at an impasse.

The couple is waiting to come in.

The class is going on a field trip.

If the noun is referring to a group of individuals acting as individuals, you would use the plural verb form.

The jury were debating the merits of the case.

The couple were asked to introduce themselves.

The class were running in all directions.

If you have trouble deciding, the rule of thumb (in the US) is to use the singular. It is almost always acceptable.

Tip 2: Compliment or complement redux

I’m bringing this up again because yesterday, I received an email that included this sentence:

She … retains an inexhaustible work ethic, excellent self-direction and a positive attitude that will compliment any team of researchers.

While the note was very enthusiastic and generally, nicely written, the writer meant ‘complement’ rather than ‘compliment.’ A classic mistake and one that no doubt stems from the fact that the words sound the same although they have different meanings, i.e., they are homonyms.

Used as a verb as in the above example, ‘compliment’ means to praise, while ‘complement’ means to make whole or complete.

She complimented the investigator on the quality of her research.

The addition of a quantitative component complemented the rich qualitative data derived from the focus groups.

One way to remember the distinction is that complement with an ‘E’ means to make complEtE.

Finally, In the title of this tip, I used the word ‘redux’ which means ‘returned.’ That is because we had a (different) discussion on this topic last March. <https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/complimentcomplement/ >



  1. Coneigh Sea said,

    So, is ideation plural in the singular or is ideations correct? As Director of Crisis Services I tell my staff that suicidal ideation is correct, yet they routinely write suicidal ideations. Drives me crazy…shall I give up on this one?

    • dlseltzer said,

      Ideation is correct. Don’t give up!

      • Joann said,

        I disagree. People have more than one suicidal thought. As the plural of “ideation” (a thought) is “ideations,” I believe the latter is correct.

  2. Sheryl said,

    I agree with Joann an ideation is one thought and ideations corresponds to more than one thought.

  3. Dr. P said,

    Actually, the definition of “ideation” is “the formation of ideas or concepts,” therefore, you should not use “ideations.” You wouldn’t write, “Client is experiencing formations of ideas.”

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