Is "staff" singular or plural?

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In the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary there is an example for "get by":

We can get by with four computers at the moment, but we'll need a couple more when the new staff arrive.

(Emphasis changed.)

Shouldn't this be "arrives"?

oscar tabarez

Posted 2019-03-23T11:51:54.803

Reputation: 103

3Reading the title, I thought the question was why we don't write "he's", "she's", or "it's" as the possessive pronouns. – David K – 2019-03-23T14:57:53.607

BrE has a practice of treating nouns for groups of people (even company or agency names) as plurals grammatically. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- – 2019-03-23T20:32:47.537

Answers

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In British English staff can be singular or plural. If it is the subject of a verb, this verb is plural.

The staff in this shop are very helpful.

Kshitij Singh

Posted 2019-03-23T11:51:54.803

Reputation: 2 686

Could you give an example where staff (meaning a number of workers) is singular? – chasly - reinstate Monica – 2019-03-23T12:38:45.730

A staff of ten. – Kshitij Singh – 2019-03-23T12:49:26.130

Hmm... You're right. I'll have to rethink. – chasly - reinstate Monica – 2019-03-23T13:35:42.287

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EDIT

I see from comments and from the answer by @Kshitij Singh that my answer does not cover all cases. I may have to rethink it.


It is a very good question. You can think of staff as an irregular plural.

We can correctly say:

When the sheep arrives we will put it in the paddock.

When the sheep arrive we can put them in the paddock.

This is is because 'sheep' is the plural of 'sheep'.

In the case of "staff", it acts as an irregular plural that has no singular form! The singular is "staff member".


Here you can see the usage in a dictionary:

Meaning of staff in English Contents staff noun UK ​ /stɑːf/ US ​ /stæf/ staff noun (PEOPLE) ​ A2 [ S, + sing/pl verb ] the group of people who work for an organization:

There is a good relationship between staff and pupils at the school.

The staff are not very happy about the latest pay increase.

There are over a hundred staff in the company.

He is on (= a member of) the editorial staff of the magazine.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/staff


Note that if you use 'staff' as a singular noun then you are indicating that it means a long substantial walking stick.

[ C ] formal a long, strong stick held in the hand that is used as a support when walking, as a weapon, or as a symbol of authority

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/staff

chasly - reinstate Monica

Posted 2019-03-23T11:51:54.803

Reputation: 4 332

I would say that it was a mass noun (except for the 'stick' sense) that behaves as a grammatical plural, but the effect is the same. – SamBC – 2019-03-23T12:23:23.970

3Lots of US-centric style guides and grammar sites and blogs obstinately maintain that 'staff' is always singular. The issue also affects company names, teams, etc. – Michael Harvey – 2019-03-23T12:36:33.533

@Michael Harvey - Interesting. So they would say, e.g. "The staff is annoyed by the new regulations." ? – chasly - reinstate Monica – 2019-03-23T12:41:45.167

2@chasly - yes, exactly. Americans would say that. – Michael Harvey – 2019-03-23T12:46:48.293

2@chasly, you should address the OP's confusion by mentioning that staff is singular-only in American English, and may be singular or plural in British English. I am surprised you did not know this. – Michael Harvey – 2019-03-23T12:49:01.387

I wonder if that relates to transatlantic confusion over whether a corporation or other organisation is singular or plural... – SamBC – 2019-03-23T13:32:18.883

@Michael Harvey - I've put an edit. – chasly - reinstate Monica – 2019-03-23T14:03:03.497

1As an American, “staff” and “team” behave like singular nouns for me, so this is accurate. – Mixolydian – 2019-03-23T14:21:10.670

Even as an American, if two new individuals are to be added to the existing staff (thereby requiring two more computers), and we referred to them as "the new staff," I would find it hard not to treat that as a plural. Usually the newcomers would be absorbed directly into the existing staff and never form a staff of their own, so it makes no sense to refer to them as "a staff." I would treat "new staff" as an elliptical expression for "new members of the staff." – David K – 2019-03-23T14:56:23.720

I wonder whether even a British speaker would treat "staff" as a plural in the phrase "on the editorial staff." If so, my response to "he is on the staff" would be, "What, every single one of them?" – David K – 2019-03-23T19:42:19.587

@David K - For me, "He is on the editorial staff" would be perfectly normal. As you can see in the following dictionary entries, "on the staff" is used, (1) "to serve on the staff" (2) "(of a professional person) employed on the staff of a corporation, publication, institution, or the like" https://www.dictionary.com/browse/staff

– chasly - reinstate Monica – 2019-03-23T19:52:07.600

1I didn't say there was anything wrong with "he is on the staff." I'm just saying that it would seem odd to me if "staff" were considered a plural noun in that usage. For example, would you write, "The staff are improved now that he is on them"? I would have written "is" and "it". Is that just an American thing? – David K – 2019-03-23T19:58:30.713

@David K - Oh, I see what you mean. No I wouldn't say that. As I said in my edit, I'm not so certain of my answer any more. I am unable to delete it now that it has been accepted. – chasly - reinstate Monica – 2019-03-23T20:10:58.293

1I think you could describe "staff" as having two meanings: 1. a group of people working for a business; and 2. a member thereof. I (American) would use singular (1) in @DavidK's sentence, referring to an impersonal group: "The staff is better now that he is in it." But I can modify it to use plural (2), which refers to the people of the staff: "The staff are happier now that he is among them." Plural (1) could occur in "The staffs of small businesses typically contain ___ to ___ people." You've noted that singular (2) sounds strained and is usually said as "staff member". – HTNW – 2019-03-23T20:40:05.393

What about "staffer" as a singular noun? – Solomon Ucko – 2019-03-24T00:41:27.030

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In American English, I think both would be acceptable. Either the sentence is treating "the staff" as one entity, which is fine, or "the staff" as multiple staff members (or "staffers").

It reminds me of how the United States used to be plural until after the American Civil War ("The US are" vs "the US is"). A similar case would be "cast" (theatrical); "The cast is all college students" is acceptable, and "the cast put on the show once a night" is also perfectly fine, for example.

user45266

Posted 2019-03-23T11:51:54.803

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