Here is an example in the Cambridge English Dictionary.

A string quartet was playing Mozart.

Is this correct? or should it be "A string quartet were playing Mozart. Is a quartet an "it" or a "they"?

I have looked at previous questions but they do not answer my question as they relate to the singular or plural form of the group (staff or staffs) which I do not dispute The group is singular

I don't really what to know what the Quartet "does" every night. However, I prefer to know if a quartet can play or if it plays every night. hence was it playing or were they playing. In either case, the quartet remains singular.

The definition of a "Quartet" being

a group of four people who play musical instruments or sing as a group:

If we were to presume that the quartet was playing, then, would it not then follow, if we are not in a "Subjunctive Mood", that we should say

"That pair of black trousers was too short" as opposed to "That pair of black trousers were too short"?

Even more confusingly, in our "soirée musicale", we seem to be dehumanising people, relegating them to being mere objects," whilst our trousers seem to be given the benefit of the doubt, even if "they" were too short". Should not a musician's humanity take preference over a group's singularity?

  • 1
    I think I would say those trousers were but that pair of trousers was. Aug 31, 2021 at 8:34
  • 2
    Does this answer your question? Does "staff" take a plural verb? See Colin Fine's comment, which is spot on. // If, as many do, one espouses notional agreement, the choice here depends on how closely the members' playing approached perfect harmony. Aug 31, 2021 at 18:38
  • Glad to have your question reopened after edits. Note that any potential answerer should take into account that there are differences here between AmE and BrE. That is (as an AmE speaker) I am surprised when a group sometimes acts as a plural in BrE, eg AmE "The team was confined to camp" vs BrE "The team were"
    – Mitch
    Sep 3, 2021 at 14:01

2 Answers 2


The definition is consistent with your intuition: It is a group (moreover performing, or meant to perform, as one unit), which is singular. If you want to emphasize the individual musicians' participations then you could word it along the lines as "The members of .."/"They", which is plural.

The intended semantical meaning isn't always polar (discretely singular xor plural) but rather on a continuum, an pragmatic matter of linguistics meets this issue. One potential possibility is to re-word.

A related case can be seen in subject-verb (dis)agreement. Suppose you're inquiring about the musical band / group of musicians:

Who is they?


Who are it?

or explicitly as

Who is this band?


Whom/What members are that that group of musicians composed of?

Another distinction in the pronoun choice is "what" vs "whom": the former implies less relevant sentience or personhood, so "who" might be preferred to agree with humanity. But then that begs the question of Is the 'who' singular or plural? If singular, then that suggests the group being referred as a whole, slightly at odds with opting for 'who(m)' over 'what'. So you must accept that different usages (slight or more divergent) may be suitable, even if the optimal one in a given situation is less common or not totally standard.


A group is singular. But, and this is a big 'but', language is changing, and usage is not perfect.

Plural pronouns are being used for singular subjects (and have been since Shakespeare).

Them and They are acceptable (to some) when referring to a single person.

In British English, as I understand it, plural verb forms are used for entities such as companies and teams. In other words, "ATT are...", not "ATT is....", as it would be in American English.

But verb agreement is inconsistent in American English too; sports writers often use plural verbs with teams, as if the word "players" is implied: "The Cubs (players) are arriving this weekend." It probably has to do with the "s" on the end of most team names, which makes them seem plural, even though "a team" is, like "a group," a singular thing.

It's hard for people to use "it" and not "they" when speaking about something that clearly involves people, like a business or a team. And there are also some strange constructions that can result from the fact that "everyone" is singular. Try this sentence: "Everyone loves football, doesn't he?" Sounds very odd, and yet that is strictly, grammatically correct. Same with someone, anyone, everybody, etc.

"Everybody loves (not 'love') ice cream."

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