Is it correct to say "one such family are..." as opposed to "one such family is..." in some circumstances?

Say, for instance, as used in this article on gene families:

[...] One such family are the genes for human haemoglobin subunits; [...]

The problem occurs when the family is a collection of things. It sounds weird if you say "One such family is the genes for human haemoglobin subunits" and saying "One such family is the family of genes for human haemoglobin subunits" is too wordy.

Does the problem make sense?


6 Answers 6


The correctness of this sentence is more apparent when one realizes that one such family is actually the [subject] complement of the sentence. The verb form of to be must therefore agree with the subject, the genes for human haemoglobin subunits; hence, are:

One such family are the genes for human haemoglobin subunits

This issue has nothing to do with the fact that family, like many collective nouns, can be treated as both singular and plural. Rather, it is simply one of subject-verb agreement (concord).

  • 1
    I think you have that backwards- the subject complement by definition follows the linking verb and serves to "rename" the subject. I can't find any case where the subject complement precedes the linking verb, or where the linking verb disagrees with its preceding noun.
    – matthias
    Commented May 4, 2011 at 7:07
  • 1
    +1; The example "One such family is the gene..." reveals that the are/is relates to gene not family. The plurality of "family" is just hiding the real issue.
    – MrHen
    Commented May 4, 2011 at 15:24
  • 1
    Further examples make this more obvious by replacing "One such family" with "These are the genes..." The wording "this is the genes" is wrong.
    – MrHen
    Commented May 4, 2011 at 15:28

I was taught (in American schools) that you can use "are" for cases where the members of the collection are acting as individuals. In my experience, we tend to stick with "is" if it is even vaguely plausible that we are treating the collection as a unit, just because we are trained to hear the noun-verb number agreement.

I've noticed that British speakers tend to lean toward "are". So, for example, on American TV, you could hear "Microsoft is rolling out a new product"; whereas the same headline on British TV would be "Microsoft are rolling out a new product".

For your particular case, I would sidestep the issue and rearrange the sentence:

The genes for human haemoglobin subunits are one such family.

Finally, I would like to note that Americans would use hemoglobin. (So maybe, if the article is British, the "one such family are" is OK?)

  • 1
    All very true, especially re the American/British Microsoft is/are distinction. And well spotted re the British bias in OP's haemoglobin! Commented May 4, 2011 at 3:07

You can use either. I don't think there's a hard-and-fast rule to identify any specific contexts where either is definitely right, or definitely wrong.

Consider the word group, which in this context is equivalent to family. As NGrams shows here, people use the singular and plural about equally even in print.

And even though The family is... is more common, you can see here that The family are... is far from unknown.

The reason you don't like the singular in your 'genes' example is simply because you've added a pluralised adjunct to your original (potentially singular) 'family'. It's perfectly natural to pluralise the whole utterance in that situation, and anyone who thinks otherwise is being, frankly, obsessive.

  • Thanks or your the quick help. However, I think many of those ngrams hits are sentences like: "Several members of the family are aquatic to varying degrees."
    – Michael
    Commented May 3, 2011 at 22:38
  • @Michael: Well I did say family is is more common, but you're right. Although 'many' isn't the same as 'all'. And almost certainly some of that is down to people being concious of grammatical 'rules' they were taught at school. In speech people are much more likely to pluralise, especially if they're thinking of many family members at the time, rather than the cohesiveness of the group as a single entity. Commented May 3, 2011 at 22:54
  • One finds the same variance in references to partnerships and corporate bodies.
    – Marcin
    Commented Jun 5, 2011 at 9:09

No, That may be correct, but it's definitely not preferred. And 'is' would sound better IMHO.

One such family is.


I would suggest:

[...] One such family is the gene family for human hemoglobin subunits; [...]

  • how would you reformulate the quoted sentence?
    – Michael
    Commented May 3, 2011 at 22:31
  • Ill edit my post in a sec. Commented May 3, 2011 at 22:33
  • I didn't say anything incorrect. I conceded that 'are' is grammatically correct in some cases, and provided a solution that I thought sounded better. Feel free to not like my answer, but do it quietly. Commented May 3, 2011 at 22:45
  • @Mike Vaughan. Done. My apologies. Commented May 3, 2011 at 23:21
  • -1; I don't think this is correct. I believe Jimi Oke's answer is correct.
    – MrHen
    Commented May 4, 2011 at 15:29

In agreement with @MikeVaughan, I'm going to say that using the plural conjugation is incorrect, and the sentence would need to be reformulated. The verb is referring to a single unit, which just happens to be a collection of things. If you want to save the second part of that phrase, I'd change the verb to shift focus from the container to its contents, for instance

[...]One such family contains the genes for human haemoglobin subunits;[...]


[...]One such family consists of the genes for human haemoglobin subunits;[...]

EDIT: To cover my comment on @Jimi Oke's answer, I'd argue that "genes" is very much the subject complement of this sentence, by its definition as the noun following the subject and linking verb, and as such, the linking verb and the complement should both agree with their preceding noun in quantity. An example of this would be:

[...]One such family is the group of genes for human haemoglobin subunits;[...]

Indeed, the OP could avoid the problem altogether by saying

[...]One such family of genes [describes, dictates, your-choice-here] human haemoglobin subunits.

I can't think of a way to simply remove "family" (or any equivalent word) as the subject of the sentence and make "genes" the subject without destroying the meaning.

  • This is not true (in reference to your first statement).
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented May 4, 2011 at 6:00

Here is the exact answer...

"family" is in the singular form. Single nouns must use "is". Using "are" is only acceptable when the noun is in the plural form. British or American, it is the same. Anyone who writes or says "the family are..." is using INCORRECT grammar.

Do you say these phrases?

The person are...? The cat are..? The Army are...?

NO, we do not, because these words are S I N G U L A R !!!

Family is, and always will be a SINGULAR word. Families is the PLURAL form, and only with a plural form of a noun can we use "are".

What are they teaching in schools these days???

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