- October 2, 2012
- Posted by: Madrigal Admin
- Category: Word of the Week Blog
Staff is the collective noun for a group of people in an organisation. It is the same way that a flock is a collective noun for a group of birds, a herd is a group of grazing animals and a school is a group of fish.
Staff (in Old English it was stæf) is an old word for a walking stick, a strong pole used for carrying, or a rod used as a weapon. The staff became a military symbol of rank and was carried by the officers who assisted the army commander. Hence at about the turn of the 18th century the group of military officers that assisted the commander became the staff. Its meaning broadened to include a group of employees in about the mid 19th century. The image is from the Canadian Army Manual of Drill and Ceremonial | Chapter 6 Sword, pace stick and cane drill.
Everyone accepts that staff is a collective noun. However a problem arises when you team it with a verb. Collective nouns are singular, that is you have one herd, one school or one staff, therefore the usage should be the staff is working hard not the staff are working hard.
However, it can also be used as a plural which I can’t quite accept. I shouldn’t be going against the flow and I should just accept the ambiguity but I can’t.
Supposedly staff can take a singular or plural verb depending on whether staff refers to the group or its members as individuals. This argument is circular because there is no way of knowing whether it refers to the collective, or the members, other than by the use of the singular or plural verb. Neither can you use this argument for flock, herd or school.
When editing I always use staff as a collective noun and match it with “is” or other singular verbs. If the original author uses the plural form and I believe they are talking about individuals I will add … members of … staff so that, for instance, the plural verb “are” will work. The word, staff, gets so overused in management documents I will quite often replace it altogether with more positive words. Words such as team, team-members, and people or other more managerial terms such as personnel, employees or even workers can be used. I don’t use human resources because it makes people sounds like assets like paper clips.
I know that I am being stubborn not accepting that staff are ever plural but I am not going to go along with the herd.