Collective nouns, such as ‘family’, ‘group’, ‘audience’, ‘staff’, ‘government’, ‘team’, ‘jury’, ‘committee’ and many others can take either singular or plural verbs depending on whether they are being thought of as singular or plural. ‘The committee is qualified to decide but is not well-informed…’ makes a statement about the committee as a unit; ‘The committee are not all qualified to decide…’ makes a statement about some of the individual members. In British English such nouns have plural meaning – ‘The committee are qualified…’ and ‘The government were slow to respond…’, here ‘government’ is perceived as meaning the people who constitute the government and is referred to by the pronoun ‘who’.
The number of a collective noun should be consistent throughout a text or speech, although violations of this rule are justified when a term must be used in both ‘singular’ and ‘plural’ senses.
‘About 70 percent of the population is urban’ and ‘About 70 percent of the population are employed in service firms’ are both correct.
Some nouns look singular in English but are plural in the language they were adopted from, such as ‘agenda’ (a schedule or list of items to be attended to) and ‘data’ (a series of observations, measurements, or facts) are both Latin plurals. Whether or not such a noun takes a singular verb is determined by usage rather than rules. The singular form ‘agendum’ is rarely used and ‘agenda’ has long been accepted as singular, with the plural ‘agendas’. ‘Data’ is plural and ‘datum’ should be used in singular form, e.g. ‘The data is incomplete’ is definitely an error.
‘Any’, ‘none’, and such combinations of pronouns as ‘any of them’ and ‘none of you’ are mostly singular; they mean ‘any one’, ‘not one’, ‘any one of them’, ‘not one of them’, though they often have a plural meaning, as in ‘None of the members renewed their yearly membership before the due date’.
Subjects that Look Plural but Can Be Singular
For example, ‘statistics’ is singular if it means the field of study, plural if it means a collection of information. There are many such nouns. They can switch back and forth from their singular to their plural meanings quite freely, even in different clauses of the same sentence: ‘The statistics of this report baffle me, it’s fair to say that statistics is not my field’.
There is hardly anyone who would not agree that ‘Five workers’ is plural—what could be more plural than a plural noun modified by a number larger than one, right? Nonetheless, ‘Five workers’ is not enough to ensure high quality output’ is correct. In this example, the plural ‘are’ could be used too. Note that ‘Five dollars are too much’ is not correct, because a sum of money is thought of as singular.
‘More than one’ although plural in meaning nevertheless takes a singular verb, either modifying a noun or standing alone: ‘More than one guest was absent’ or ‘More than one of the guests was absent’. Likewise in the example ‘One or two guests was absent’ singular form of the verb should be used.
‘All’ as a subject is typically plural, as in ‘All are glad to be home’, here it refers to ‘some people’, however it can be clearly singular as well, as in ‘All is lost’, in which it refers to a totality. The example ‘All I could think of were the children’ is not correct, because the plural ‘children’ is merely the complement, not the subject, thus it should not determine the number of the verb – ‘All I could think of was the children’ is correct. Even when the complement is multiple, ‘all’ is singular when its own meaning is a totality.