From Wordweb:

  1. [A g]roup of people willing to obey orders
  2. The department responsible for hiring and training and placing employees and for setting policies for personnel management

The two are kind of clashing. One says group ready to obey, while other says group that would make someone obey. Are both meanings valid depending on context? That means, can service staff performing tasks like cleaning be considered as personnel?

Also, what is the word's plural form?


3 Answers 3


In your definition no. 2, personnel is used as short for personnel department, i.e. the department of a company responsible for hiring and firing personnel. It is just like research standing for research department, etc.

Better take those papers to Research. Or, wait, I think the guys at Personnel should have a look at it first, since it concerns hiring new research personnel.

I consider the word personnel to be singular. The plural personnels is not used, because this word is a collective noun, i.e. a singular noun that can be treated as plural and gets a plural verb, just like police, family, etc. Whether to use a singular or plural verb depends on whether you are thinking of the group of people that make up the personnel (plural), or rather the concept or unit of personnel (singular, less frequent).

  • The personnel have been complaining about working late.

  • Our well trained personnel is our greatest asset. (Plural might be possible too, but probably less common in this sense.)

  • I think Personnel is not going to be happy about moving to a new building. (The Personnel Department; plural would probably work as well? Not sure.)

Note that plural verbs with collective nouns are more frequent in England than in America.

[ Some people would call collective nouns plural, but I'm not a big fan of that. I consider plural primarily an inflectional quality, its syntactic ramifications being secondary. That is how plurals are analysed in other languages as well. Just as we only call committees plural, never committee, not even in sentences like the committee have come to a decision. But I can understand if some people might disagree. Each model has its merits. ]

  • 2
    American English handles collective nouns completely differently from British English. Any collective noun is either singular or plural, and this determines the verb. For example, you would always say: The government is, The committee is, The police are, The personnel are (unless you're talking about the Personnel department or the Police department, of couse). May 6, 2011 at 17:54
  • 2
    There are actually very few plural collective nouns in American English. The ones I can think of (even after some internet searching) are cattle, clergy, police, personnel, poultry and maybe fauna, flora, vermin. Sports teams also fit into this category (even ones whose names are singular nouns). Given how few there are, it's rather amazing to me that personnel seems to have switched from singular to plural. May 6, 2011 at 22:49
  • The problem with your second sentence is that asset is singular, so the verb also has to be. And the third sentence is a good example of the different meanings (Personnel is not going to be happy, but the personnel are going to be). Jun 7, 2011 at 22:39
  • @TimLymington: What do you mean? These machines are our greatest asset. Jun 7, 2011 at 23:03
  • (1) 'personnel' is arguably singular in form (compare colonel / kennel / channel / _especially) mangonel ... //// (2) 'personnel' is arguably never count (*3/17 personnel/s) //// (3a) used as short for personnel department, the usage is non-count and takes the predictable singular verb form // (3b) used in the 'members of staff etc' sense, it is rather like 'police' in the 'police officers' sense (though '1000 police' is available, unlike '1000 personnel') in not accepting numerals (hence not a count usage) but requiring a plural verb form (so arguably not non-count either). Mar 3, 2022 at 12:30

I would have said that personnel is plural, and has no singular form. Some of the dictionaries disagree with me (although from Robusto's answer, NOAD agrees with me), but consider the google Ngram:

Ngram: personnel is; personnel are

It looks like personnel used to be singular in the 1920's, but is now trending towards being only a plural noun. Here are some excerpts from Google books where personnel is treated as singular:

This personnel is supplied only on the request of the State health authorities ... (1918)
That the personnel of a formation or establishment is armed and uses its arms in self-defence or in defence of its sick or wounded. (1917)
The personnel is divided into three classes: (1915)

As Bogdan Lataianu remarks in a comment, none of the results in this Google Ngram individually establishes anything, since you have constructions like "The shortages of personnel are apparent ...", where both is and are can appear after personnel for an unrelated reason. However, I think the general trend of the graph from personnel is to personnel are can only be explained by personnel moving from a singular noun to a plural one, at least in American English. British English handles verb agreement with collective nouns quite differently; see Cerberus's answer.

  • 2
    The graph is irrelevant because "personnel is" comes from expressions that take singular form, for example: "the quality of personnel is", "the economics of personnel is", "the category of medical personnel is". May 6, 2011 at 15:42
  • @Bogdan: if this were true, why would the Ngram have changed so much over the years? Also a quote from 1921: "... will lead to the belief that this personnel is strongly in need of such attention"; from 1923: "At New York the personnel is nine"; from 1921: "So that the practical situation is that your work is increasing while your personnel is decreasing?" May 6, 2011 at 21:11

First, the plural of personnel is personnel. It is a plural noun:

From NOAD:

personnel |ˌpərsəˈnel| plural noun people employed in an organization or engaged in an organized undertaking such as military service compare with materiel : : many of the personnel involved require training | sales personnel.

It just means the people of an organization.

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