What Is a Collective Noun?
When grammarians get together to plot how to confuse the rest of us and end up confusing themselves, they often play the “Do what sounds best” card, or the “It depends” card. The card they play with collective nouns reads: “What the writer has in mind should be the controlling factor,” one of the more confusing statements about grammar. How do we know what the writer has in mind?
Mid-twentieth-century grammarian Margaret Bryant wrote, “If a group of words . . . creates one conception in the mind of the person using them as a subject, a singular verb follows. In Modern English where there is a conflict between form and meaning, meaning tends to triumph.” That means that no matter what we write, we’re probably correct as long as we were sincere when we wrote it.
In A Writer’s Reference, Diana Hacker narrows the rule a bit: “If the group functions as a unit, treat the noun as singular; if the members of the group function individually, treat the noun as plural.” That’s not always clear, but as the Forces of Singularity battle the Forces of Plurality here on Earth, we usually can discern the logic she proposes and write accordingly:
The team enter/enters the stadium.
The British would write enter, but in America, despite the team comprising 18 players, we would write enters because all those players function as a unit when entering. But when we write:
The team stretch/stretches on the field.
we know the players function individually, eighteen of them, so stretch would be correct. Which brings us to an excellent point: Rather than trying to determine who is functioning as what, use a word that describes one of the collective: members, players, jurors, people, soldiers, students, drones.
The players stretch on the field.
One thing grammarians sing as a single chorus: Within the sentence, be consistent. If you use a singular verb with a collective noun, then use a singular pronoun:
The young team hopes to at least score in their its opening match.
Two special cases: Treat bands and branded sports teams, even those with singular names, as plural—Lady Antebellum/Orlando Magic are—unless referring to a team by location only; then make it singular—Orlando/Chicago/San Francisco is. I can't imagine that the edge of arcane stretches any farther than this.
I’m still not sure what to tell Captain Picard when suddenly on the bridge appear/appears Borg. But because one is over here and another over there, I assume there are two in the room, and even in 2373, one and one still make two, which is plural. But wait! Both drones are wired into the Collective, which is singular. What to do? Does he exclaim, “Abandon ship! Borg has breached security!” Or, "All hands on deck! Borg are storming the bridge!" These are tough questions. And resistance is futile.