By Mary Morel
Reader’s question: Which is correct: staff or staffs when referring to people?
Answer: The correct word is staff if you are referring to a group of people within an organisation.
However, you can use staffs as a third-person singular verb meaning to work or operate.
She staffs the shop every Monday.
Staff is a collective noun and should have a singular verb, i.e. staff is.
This sounds odd because we are talking about more than one person, which is why many people use a plural verb, i.e. staff are.
Many people raised on traditional grammar consider staff are is wrong. However, modern grammarians now say collective nouns can take either a singular or plural verb depending on the context.
So you could treat a collective noun as singular if it referred to a single entity, and plural if it referred to a number of individuals. For example:
The family (single unit) is united in its disapproval.
The staff (several individuals) are giving each other presents.
Often you can get around this problem by changing the word. For example, instead of using staff, you could say employees or our people.
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You don’t need an understanding of grammar to write well, but you do need some grammar basics to understand why some things in English are right or wrong. For instance, when do you use ‘whom’ and does it matter?
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