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Is this correct?:

The group of students does their work well.

The group, the subject, I consider singular. When it comes to the possessive, though, I feel like it would be wrong to refer to a group of people as "it." Would it be correct to use "their?"

Isn't there some sort of rule against referring to a group of individual people as it?

And what about this sentence:

The family returns to their house. The collective noun, family, is singular, so would it be "its" or "their?"

@Peter Shor - Thank you, but in the situation where the sentence cannot be paraphrased in another way and it must be written formally, which would be used? (this was a question on an English grammar assessment). In other words, if the possessive was the only thing that could be altered, which is more correct?

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    AmE or BrE? In AmE, their is fine. I'll leave the discussion of British English to somebody from the U.K., but possibly it should be The group of students do their work well. – Peter Shor Apr 2 '16 at 14:16
  • You can't use "does" with "their". You might say "The students do their work well" or "The group of students does its work well." – zondo Apr 2 '16 at 14:19
  • AmE. Also, what about: – L.C. Apr 2 '16 at 14:22
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    @Peter Shor: If "their work" was a single collective endeavour, I suppose we Brits might accept singular does. But for most contexts we'd treat the group as plural in contexts like this, since each individual student normally does his work (though I assume you'd also be happy with [Each individual student] does their work well). – FumbleFingers Apr 2 '16 at 14:26
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    @Edwin: does. I don't think the family returned to its house is that bad, but the family retired to its beds really sounds wrong. I can't find a reference, though. – Peter Shor Apr 2 '16 at 14:59
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From the paper Dialectal Variation in Number Agreement with Collective Nouns in English, by Ingrid Rodrick Beiler and Cynthia Hatch [talking about collective nouns]:

Levin (2001) concurs: “Spontaneously produced AmE speech appears to contain high proportions of plural agreement with relative and personal pronouns, whereas more formal AmE preserves low proportions of plural agreement...Verbs, on the other hand, very rarely take plural agreement in AmE” (p. 76).

That is, in informal American English, we rarely use plural verbs for nouns like family and crowd, but we are happy using plural pronouns for them. In formal American English, we are more likely to avoid using plural pronouns. But in formal writing, we have the luxury of having time to think about how to rewrite the sentence to circumvent the problem.

Levin also studied mixed agreement, where the verb is singular and the pronoun is plural:

... results from the spoken AmE corpora indicate that the collective nouns, committee, company, family, and group produce shifts “in at least two thirds of the instances” (Levin, 2001, p. 120).

So sentences like the OP's,

The group of students does their work well.
The family returns to their house.

are quite common in informal American English. It's probably a good idea to avoid them in formal writing—although you certainly don't want to use its in sentences like

The family put on their coats.

You should say the family members, or figure out some other way of paraphrasing the sentence. On the other hand, meaning matters:

The family holds its annual reunion in Annapolis.

is perfectly fine.

1 Levin, M. (2001). Agreement with Collective Nouns in English. Lund, Sweden: Lund University.

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  • Thank you (but I admit I would have preferred it if you hadn't found this). – Edwin Ashworth Apr 2 '16 at 21:15

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