May 23, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: ‘personnel’ and collective nouns & using apostrophes

Posted in apostrophe, collective nouns at 8:42 am by dlseltzer

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 teams 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

never               ne’er

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 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.

That’s better.



  1. Jean said,


    My question is somehow related to your first tip ” Personnel & collective nouns”, or maybe not so much. Anyway 🙂

    I read a paper last time and one sentence attracted my attention (I’m not a native English speaker).

    “Other techniques to overcome deception and to bootstrap evolution rely on the decomposition of the objective into multiple sub-goals that each are easier to attain.”

    What is bizarre to me is “that each are …”. I’ve always believed that “each” was singular, and therefore I expected to read “that each is easier to attain”.

    Thank you very much!

    • dlseltzer said,

      ‘Each’ can be singular or plural depending on how it is used, but it doen’t make sense to use it here.’Each’ was the word in that sentence that was totally jarring to me to see there. It should be omitted. If left in, then something like this: into multiple sub-goals each of which is easier to attain.

  2. Kelsey Arnold said,

    I’ve seen lots of appositives lately with only one comma instead of two. My church website mentions “West, TX Disaster Relief,” and I saw a letter *from a lawyer *a few days ago (I work in the mail room, by the way) that did the same thing with a name. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it was along the lines of “Your son, Jimmy Bob did something.”

    Was I taught appositives completely wrong? Or is this another case of everyone forgetting (or ignoring) how English works?

    Kelsey S Arnold (713) 458-8088

    • dlseltzer said,

      You’re right. You need the commas unless the appositive is essential to the meaning of the sentence. I will write this up. Thanks.

  3. Warsaw Will said,

    According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary, Macmillan Dictionary and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, “personnel” is always plural when referring to the people who work in an organisation. Admittedly, some American dictionaries add another category: a body of persons employed in an organisation, etc. But “after the holidays” are the personnel really going to return as a body and with a single mind?

    For me, “personnel” is not really the same as group or collective nouns like “team, company, government” etc, which, in British English at least, can take a singular or plural verb, depending on whether they are seen as a unit or as a group of individuals. It’s more like “police”, which is always plural.

    Although there are plenty of examples of “the personnel is” on the Internet, when we look at published edited material, the picture is rather different. The proportion of “the personnel are” to “the personnel is” is about 50:1 in Google Books. But that includes things like “the advice rendered by the personnel is … “. To exclude those, I tried with “that the personnel are”, giving 358,000 hits as opposed to “that the personnel is”, which came up with a mere 9.

    The difference is not so marked on Ngram, but there seems to have been a change since the 1960s in favour of the use of the plural.

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