November 8, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: upon or on & collective nouns

Posted in collective nouns, collective nouns and pronouns, collective nouns and verb agreement, on/upon at 6:17 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Upon or on

Cut it out. Stop using it. You know who you are. It should never appear in any of your scientific manuscripts. ‘Upon’ belongs only in fairy tales. I’m joking, but I’m serious. ‘Upon’ has no business in science and medicine.

‘Upon’ can almost always be replaced by ‘on,’ and it should be. ‘Upon’ should only be used when you are saying ‘at the time of.’

Upon graduating, the student will apply to graduate schools.

Upon slaying the dragon, the prince went in search of the princess.

See, you’ve even got me writing fairy tales. This is a very brief tip, and it is not really a tip at all—it is a decree. ‘Upon’ should NEVER be used in your academic writing.

Upon completion of the experiment, the frog once again remembered what it was to be a prince.

Oh, please.

NOTE: I just noticed that I wrote about this before (in the summer of 2010). Back then, I said it was up to you and to use either word. I must have been more mellow back then. Ignore what I wrote then, and hear me now. Don’t use ‘upon’ in your formal writing!

Tip 2: More on collective nouns

A reader writes:

 I remain confused about collective nouns; “staff” is the prime example. The computer’s program always says it should be singular.

The staff was unhappy.

All of the staff was unhappy. [?}

All of the staff members were unhappy.

First, when the reader refers to ‘the computer’s program.’ I am assuming he is referring to Word’s grammar checker since that seems to be the word processing program most people use, so let me say a few words about that: TURN IT OFF! It is awful. It doesn’t know the first thing about grammar, and using it can only lead to trouble.

I seem to be in a bit of a mood this morning, but really, turn it off. Under Word Preferences, go to Spelling and Grammar, just uncheck the line that says ‘Check grammar while you type,’ and you will be happily rid of this misguided tool.

Second, the good news when it comes to collective nouns is that there are no hard and fast rules—there are merely conventions. The convention in the US used to be that all collective nouns take a singular verb, but this has changed over time. Now, the convention is to use a singular verb if referring to a group acting together and to use a plural verb if the members of the group are acting individually. In the UK, the convention was always to use a plural verb, but that seems to be changing, too, and usage is moving to the same as the US.

The example provided by our reader is a tricky one. (That’s why it is so nice that there are no wrong answers.) Let’s look at possibilities he provided.

The staff was unhappy.

Remember, we use the singular when all are acting as a unit and the plural when acting individually.  In this case, they are all unhappy at the same time, but are they indicating their unhappiness as a unit? I would say no. I would imagine some are rewriting their resumes, some are planning a protest, some may be crying, and some may even be cursing—but, they are doing these things individually. In this case, I would use the plural verb:

The staff were unhappy.

On to the second possibility:

All of the staff was unhappy.

Adding ‘all’ makes no difference as far as I see it. All is an indefinite pronoun that can work with a singular or plural verb, and the choice depends on what it is referring to. It’s referring, here, to staff, and as I said, I contend that they are acting individually, so a plural verb is needed:

All of the staff were unhappy.

On to the third possibility:

All of the staff members were unhappy.

This wording is my favorite. By adding members, we clarify the need for a plural. Sentences  with collective nouns, because of the confusion they can cause, are good candidates for rewriting. There is usually another way to state something that eliminates ambiguities.

Remember, when in doubt, rewrite.




  1. Frankie said,

    Great stuff!
    However, I disagree that the convention in the UK is always to use a plural verb with collective nouns. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary states the following:The general rule with words like these is to treat them as singular when the emphasis is on the group as a whole and as plural when the emphasis is on the individuals that form the group.

  2. Warsaw Will said,

    1. I would have thought your argument would also apply to ‘at the time of’ – “On graduating … ” sounds to me more natural than “Upon graduating …” In TEFL we teach “on doing something, …”, but not “upon doing something, …”

    2. @Frankie – you’re right, but I think we use plural a lot more than singular, precisely because we do usually see institutions as groups of people – so, for example, “A new government has been elected.” but “The government are introducing a new law”. As far as I’m aware, British newspapers usually use plural verbs with group nouns. I certainly do.

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