A collective noun is a singular noun that refers to a group of individuals, animals, or objects, such as faculty, team, colony, staff, herd, and group. Interestingly, this is one of those points on which British and American English do not agree. In British English, the collective noun usually takes a plural verb:
The rugby team are practicing night and day for the Rugby World Cup.
The staff are complaining loudly about the lack of overtime.
We Americans, however, usually pair a collective noun with a singular verb:
The football team is practicing night and day for the Super Bowl.
The staff is complaining loudly about the lack of overtime.
In these cases, we are thinking of these groups as singular units. The emphasis is on the whole, on everyone working in unison for one goal or expressing one thought. There are times, however, when we think of these groups as individuals:
Boston’s school committee disagree about what to cut from the school budget.
The faculty are preparing their courses for next year.
Here, individuals within the group are not acting as one. School committee members have conflicting ideas about how to reduce the budget. The faculty are working independently of each other to prepare coursework for the coming year.
Sometimes, though, a collective noun with a plural verb sounds odd to American ears:
The audience are fighting in the aisles.
In such a case, it is better to rewrite your sentence:
Audience members are fighting each other in the aisles.
Grammatically speaking, there is no right or wrong answer here. A collective noun can go with either a singular verb or a plural verb. The choice is in what sounds right to your ear. Once you make that choice, however, be consistent throughout your text. Otherwise, your audience might indeed start fighting in the aisles.
A version of this article originally published in 2010 on Macmillan Dictionary Blog.