May 23, 2013
Weekly Language Usage Tips: ‘personnel’ and collective nouns & using apostrophes
Tip 1: Personnel & collective nouns
A reader writes:
A student writes “By tracking information, hospital personnel is encouraged to work as a team.”
Seems to me the verb should be ‘are,’ not is. Isn’t ‘personnel’ a collective noun taking a plural verb.
Is ‘personnel’ a collective noun? Is it like ‘group,’ which is a collective noun: A group is here. But it’s also singular and can be made plural. A few groups are here.
Is it like ‘deer’, which is both singular and plural? I see a deer. I see many deer.
Gather round, kids, I am going to blow your minds. No, don’t worry–the student, our reader wrote about is absolutely wrong. But maybe not quite as wrong as you think!
The reader is right; the verb should be ‘are’ not ‘is.’ And yes, ‘personnel’ is a collective noun. And as we know, collective nouns can either be singular or plural depending on whether the group it is referring to is acting as a unit or as individuals.
In the reader’s example, a student wrote that ‘hospital personnel is encouraged to work as a team,’ but If they are being encouraged to act as a team, they are, by definition, acting as individuals, and a plural verb is called for.
“By tracking information, hospital personnel are encouraged to work as a team.”
Actually, I have a bit of a problem with the ‘by tracking information’ part of the sentence, too, but that is another topic altogether.
The reader asked, “Isn’t ‘personnel’ a collective noun taking a plural verb?”
Well, it takes a plural verb in the example, but…
This is the mind-blowing part: even though we almost always use ‘personnel’ with a plural verb, there are times when you can use this collective noun in the singular—not referring to one person but to a group of employees (e.g., staff). So there are times when ‘personnel is’ is correct! Not what the student wrote, of course, but when you are referring to a group of people acting as a unit.
After the holidays, we will see if the personnel returns with a new attitude.
Mind blowing. I can’t say that I am crazy about this. But this seems to be the deal.
So what else did the reader ask? “Is it like group?” No, you would never add an ‘s’ to ‘personnel.’ “Is it like deer?” Sort of. It never refers to one person as ‘deer’ can refer to one ‘deer’—it refers to the employees of an entity or to the group of employees of an entity.
Tip 2: Using apostrophes
I have been reviewing quite a few grant proposals recently, and I have noticed a growing phenomenon that is quite disturbing. More and more frequently, people are omitting the much needed apostrophe in possessive nouns.
For aim 2, we will examine the patients medical records to determine patients eligibility.
Using the electronic health record (EHR), we identified eligible women between 18-24 weeks gestation scheduled for prenatal visits.
The teams experience ensures that we will be able to conduct this study efficiently.
Whats that all about? So sorry, just kidding—what’s that all about?
So here is today’s quick review of apostrophes. There are three uses for apostrophes—that’s it—just three. And one of them doesn’t even occur very often.
1. You use apostrophes to show possession. Let me try my examples again, with the apostrophes where they should be.
For aim 2, we will examine the patients‘ medical records to determine patients‘ eligibility.
Using the electronic health record (EHR), we identified eligible women between 18-24 weeks‘ gestation scheduled for prenatal visits. (Didn’t we just go over this?)
The team‘s experience ensures that we will be able to conduct this study efficiently.
I know that you know how apostrophes are used to show possession, so it must be just carelessness.
I bet you were supportive of Devon, England’s plan to abolish apostrophes from signs and maps. That plan was overturned, by the way, because a great furor ensued when news of the plan became known.
Anyway, that’s one use.
2. You use apostrophes to make contractions. The apostrophe shows that there are letters missing.
does not doesn’t
what is what’s
And so forth.
3. You use apostrophes to avoid confusion with certain letters that would be hard to decipher when used in the plural. For example,
Mind your ps and qs.
It’s much clearer if you write it like this.
Mind your p’s and q’s.
I told you that this use doesn’t come up much.
THIS IS THE ONLY PLACE THAT YOU USE AN APOSTROPHE TO FORM A PLURAL. NO WHERE ELSE!
This is done all the time, but it’s always wrong. I don’t even want to give you an example—you don’t need to have that in your head.
Think of pretty flowers instead.