The word staff can apparently refer to a member of a group of service personnel. (Dictionary.com mentions this as one of the meanings of staff: a member of a staff.)

I was wondering how native speakers look upon this usage of the word staff. For example, consider the sentence I called a staff aside. I know a less questionable way to rephrase the sentence might be I called a staff member aside. But is the first version acceptable; does it sound outlandish?

closed as off-topic by Kris, user66974, oerkelens, Ronan, TimLymington Jul 9 '14 at 15:44

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  • Have you checked a good dictionary? – Kris Jul 9 '14 at 6:47
  • I checked three different dictionaries, but couldn't find a definitive answer to the question. I think they were reasonably good dictionaries in other respects. – gkb0986 Jul 9 '14 at 6:49
  • "I called the staff aside" sounds good – Monica Jul 9 '14 at 9:28
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    I've definitely heard it used that way, but maybe it's colloquial in academia, where "staff" and "faculty" are more like castes than roles (as in "Oh, he's just staff"). – Dan Bron Jul 9 '14 at 17:50
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    Your Dictionary.com reference certainly licenses 'I called a staff aside.' = 'I called a staffer aside.' = 'I called a member of staff aside.' While I wouldn't use 'staff' this way myself, I think we need the OED data here. And you're quite correct that 'off-topic as being genref' is an incorrect censure here. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 9 '14 at 22:28
up vote 1 down vote accepted

Staff is a mass noun; it refers to a (uncountable) group. Prefixing it with the indefinite article still indicates a group, though now the group is unspecified (i.e. indefinite).

In other words, the only time a native English speaker would use "a staff" (when not talking about some kind of walking stick) is in the sense:

Mary hired a staff to handle the wedding, including an event planner, a cook, a photographer, and some ushers.¹

Or:

A kitchen staff usually comprises a head chef, a saucier (or sous chef), a few line cooks, and a dishwasher

Using "a staff" to mean "one of the staff" would be received as awkward and confusing (and a bit dehumanizing, and hence demeaning, to the staff member in question; which means you could use it sardonically in precisely that sense).


¹ Though this is perhaps a bad example, because makes it sound like she hired each of those individuals separately; that's certainly possible, but to hire "a staff" carries the connotation that she hired them as a group, that came together (perhaps from a specialized wedding supplier).

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    I said the same myself, though without a supporting authority I restricted my opinion to a comment. According to Dictionary.com, the usage of 'a staff' for 'a member of staff' is allowable if not to our liking. I've deleted my inadequate comment. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 9 '14 at 22:39

Although "staff" can refer to an individual person, in modern colloquial it is used in the group sense. That is why "a member of staff" sounds correct. We automatically interpret that staff is a group, and therefore has "a member".

Similarly, consider "My staff was absent today". Although it does not specify if it is a single person or a group but most people will take it to mean "My entire staff was absent today".

So technically, "a staff", should be correct, but is not common in modern usage.

  • That's not the way the word is used with an article. Please check usage examples. – Kris Jul 9 '14 at 10:26
  • I'd like to say "Compare 'a jury', which does not mean 'a member of the jury' ", but OP's reference says that 'a staff' CAN be used to mean 'a member of staff'. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 9 '14 at 22:41

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