Can "uncountable" nouns be counted?


AH reads: staff, n. A group of assistants to a manager, executive, or other person in authority.

Four staff moves at Vanquish Recruitment.

What is the meaning of "four staff" in the headline above:

  1. Four groups of assistants to a manager moves ...

  2. Four staff members move(s) at Vanquish Recruitment.

If that means 2 case, is the 's' needed to inflect the verb 'move'? If not, why is the 's' used in the above headline.

Also, since 'staff' in a not countable noun, is it correct to say 'four staff'?


Posted 2013-03-05T21:24:10.183


Most uncountable nouns turn out to be countable if you force it, and this changes the definition of the word. – Joshua – 2017-07-16T21:24:00.977

Can you provide more context? – Renan – 2013-03-05T21:50:39.397

@Renan, thank you for having asked more context with the intent, I believe, to post an answer, but I'm looking for general rules governing the "staff" usage, not for its usage in a given context. – None – 2013-03-05T21:58:13.090

As A@Jay surmises, this is a noun phrase serving as a headline, not a sentence.

– StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-03-05T23:33:48.067



It is not "four staff", it is "four moves". "Four" and "staff" are both adjectives modifying "moves". While "move" is normally a verb, in this case it is being used as a noun. "A move" here means the movement of someone or something -- a member of the staff in this case.

The text as given is not a complete sentence because it has no verb. In context, it may be a title. It would not be surprising to see "Four Staff Moves at Vanquish", and then underneath this to be a list of the four people moved.

I suppose that as the sentence is given out of context, it is also possible that it is a mistake in one way or another. Without more context, it would be hard to say what the intent was if that's the case.


Posted 2013-03-05T21:24:10.183

Reputation: 51 729

2Since it's a recruitment place, I would guess that this might be some kind of tally of hires / fires / changing of position, which might explain why it is not a complete sentence. A agree that it is "four moves"; a fuller sentence might be "Vanquish Recruitment has assisted companies with four staff moves in the past month." – Trish Rempel – 2013-03-05T22:08:34.053

@TrishRempel A plausible guess, but in fact the moves took place at VR ... see the link in my comment to the question. Otherwise, you and Jay are spot on. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-03-05T23:35:48.317

2Re: "In context, it may be a title": Not just "may be"; the question explicitly says that it's a headline. – ruakh – 2013-03-06T00:39:54.240

@ruakh Good point. I glossed over that. Doesn't change my answer though. – Jay – 2013-03-06T21:55:00.857


Without further context, the most obvious meaning to the sentence is that the staff, as a whole, have experienced four moves. Consider:

The staff have moved four times this past year.

Four staff moves have occurred this year.

"Staff" is a plural noun, even if the number of employees is zero or one. The usage of "staff" as a singular noun does occur (I don't have a reference to point at, unfortunately) but it is far preferable to refer to "staff members" or "a member of the staff". This avoids the uncertainty you encountered in your original sentence.

Jonathan Garber

Posted 2013-03-05T21:24:10.183

Reputation: 3 314

1Interesting. I would have said "the staff has" is AmE and "the staff have" is BrE, but your profile says you're American. (I am, as well.) Do you think I'm mistaken on this point? – snailplane – 2013-03-06T01:05:11.510

@snailplane That's a point. It is in fact a question that's been raised before on ELU, now that I go hunting for it. In my personal experience, the American usage has always been accompanied by other subtle grammatical errors, which may have led to unconscious bias against it. I'll put some thought into revising my answer to better reflect this.

– Jonathan Garber – 2013-03-07T14:06:58.023