20

I am under the impression that the word staff is uncountable/singular when referring to a collection of employees in a company. This is corroborated by some online sources I have found: Macmillan and this article.

However, I just heard this in a YouTube video (at 1:36):

These non-litigious companies typically have much smaller legal staffs.

It seems the person in the video uses the plural form to talk about departments at different companies, thus using staff in a way similar to I'd like two waters, please. But is this usage common?

Edit:

I clarified which usage of water I was talking about. As one of the answerers CJ Dennis said in a comment, "It's the classification of individual words that drives grammar." I very much agree with this opinion and wonder if the connection I loosely made in my line of thinking is part of the classification at issue. Of course answers don't have to address the pluralization of water.

  • 3
    staff can be pluralized; people can be pluralized; water can be pluralized...ahhh..English! – Maulik V May 30 '18 at 2:12
  • @MaulikV Ditto "ahhh..English!" Equally interesting/frustrating is that their pluralization all seems to have different reasons. Wait... can pluralization be pluralized here...? Ugh! – Eddie Kal May 30 '18 at 2:22
  • Yeah, at least string pluralizations is possible! – Maulik V May 30 '18 at 2:27
  • 17
    And to make things even more confusing, there's a countable noun staff that refers to a large wooden stick or to an element of musical notation that has two acceptable plurals: staffs or staves. You would never use staves as the plural of staff meaning "people employed by a business." – Canadian Yankee May 30 '18 at 3:10
  • You've asked two different questions, one in the title and one in the body. I doubt you'll get an answer to the second, but if you really want one then you might have to be more specific. For example Google n-grams lets you choose the corpus in which to measure the frequency of use: books.google.com/ngrams/… but it's not going to tell you which of those uses of "staffs" are in the sense you mean, vs meaning "sticks". – Steve Jessop May 30 '18 at 10:45
34

Some people confuse the terms collective noun with mass noun or uncountable noun. As a simple, relatable example, herd is a countable, collective noun. You can have one herd or multiple herds, even though a single herd is composed of multiple members.

Twenty cows are crossing the road.

A herd of cows is crossing the road.

Three herds of cows are crossing the road.

Likewise with staff. It is also a countable, collective noun. Each company has one staff, which is all of its employees as a group. Two separate companies have two separate staffs.

Individual:

  • cow
  • tree

Collective:

  • staff
  • herd

Uncountable:

  • water
  • air

Uncountable nouns can be used countably in informal language.

I'd like two waters please.

In formal language, they must be qualified by an amount.

I'd like two glasses of water please.

I'd like two drinks of water please.

I'd like some water please.

Note: there are many other meanings of waters that don't apply here. These usages are always plural and are rarely counted. e.g. the waters of Finland. We don't say two waters of Finland and the water of Finland has a different meaning.

Collective nouns are always countable, however, in British English, even in formal language, they may be used either as singular or plural without changing form (see elsewhere for the full details):

The staff is very happy (one staff)

The staff are very happy (the members of one staff)

The staffs are very happy (multiple staffs)

  • I am not so sure we could talk about "countable collective nouns" as a single fixed concept. Are collective nouns necessarily count nouns? Because I would say herd and staff are definitely different in some of their grammatical functions. For example, we say "a herd of cows", but not "a staff of people." I wonder if that difference is the reason both the Cambridge Dictionary and the Macmillan Dictionary consider staff (as a collection of people) only valid in singular. – Eddie Kal May 31 '18 at 1:48
  • 1
    @Deansue That's a very good point. When we have herds, we don't know of what. Herds of sheep? Herds of cattle? When we have staffs, we know they're of people. You can have staffs of mostly men, staffs of women or staffs of inexperienced workers, so it's not a grammatical problem to use of immediately after staff(s). – CJ Dennis May 31 '18 at 1:56
  • 2
    Usage of "waters" isn't always informal. What do you make of "stormy waters", and "testing the waters" idioms? It's difficult to replace them with a singular without sounding strange. – dbkk May 31 '18 at 5:57
  • 2
    @dbkk As mentioned in the answer: Note: there are many other meanings of waters that don't apply here. I've flagged your comment for deletion, due to an excess of water related comments previously, which have now all been deleted. You may choose to delete your comment yourself. – CJ Dennis May 31 '18 at 6:00
  • 1
    If you want to use "water" as an example in your answer, folks are going to point out this other usage of waters. The distinction between plural "waters" and "the waters of Finland" is something that trips up learners. Obviously your explanation of why "waters" in that sense doesn't apply here isn't really helping folks understand and deleting the comments isn't putting a stop to it. You should try again to clarify that part of your answer, or just accept the feedback. There is another question around here that deals with "waters" in this other sense - I'll see if I can't find it. – ColleenV May 31 '18 at 11:29
29

Staff is a collective noun, so when you are talking about individuals within the staff, you would say something like

2 staff members

A sentence like the following is also possible.

Two members of staff will join this month.

I believe that's the uncountable usage you are referring to. But when you are talking about multiple collections, you can pluralize it to staffs, just as you would with families, and crews, and many others. (source, definition 5, and note that 5e shows the uncountable usage)

As an aside, there are usages of water that can be pluralized. But I feel that that's not related to this collective noun issue.

  • 3
    I've always found 'staffs' to be an odd word, which "sounds wrong". I think this is because it's usually used to mean "two members of staff", which is (IMHO) incorrect. However, you could say "the combined staffs of the two companies", which sounds reasonably correct to me, at least (although I'm not sure I'd ever say it myself - I'd probably say "the combined workforces of the two companies" instead). – Ralph Bolton May 30 '18 at 13:33
  • 2
    "But I feel that that's not related to this collective noun issue." It does give an example of a pertinent general point; it's not words that are collective nouns so much as senses that are. – Jon Hanna May 30 '18 at 13:41
  • 1
    "Two members of staff" is not correct. "Two staff members" or "two members of the staff" would be. – T.J.L. May 31 '18 at 4:28
  • 1
    I've heard it and seen it used, @T.J.L. but if you have a reference that indicates that construction is ungrammatical, and I simply saw and heard erroneous usages, I would be happy to update the answer. – LeeV May 31 '18 at 7:11
  • @LeeV so what about equipment, can we use it in plural form just as crews and staffs? – Zich May 31 '18 at 11:36
6

Okay, this is simple.

When referring to a collection of people that work somewhere the word staff is a collective noun.

If you are referring to one or many individuals in the same collection, then there is still one collection so staff is not pluralized.

If you are referring to multiple different collections, then staff should be pluralized as staffs.

e.g.

The staffs of many companies and organizations benefit from the centralized improvements in benefits.

is correct.

If you are are referring to any army with long sticks, you should use the plural staves, unless you are a colonial, okay with the accelerated simplification of the English Language, in which case, staffs would also be acceptable.

e.g.

The massed hordes brandished their staves .


P.S.

in this sense staff is not a collective noun but horde is and yes, I do mean more than one horde.

4

Yes, it can be pluralised. Such pluralisation is sometimes used to refer to the general staff (a military term, for example the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation) of multiple countries.

An example is this article titled: The Role of the General Staffs in July 1914, referring to the roles of different countries' general staff in the lead up to WWI.

The first sentence of the article illustrates the meaning:

The distinguished British military historian, Captain Liddell Hart, declared in 1934 that the general staffs of the great powers had played a role of decisive importance in the diplomatic crisis of July 1914 which unleashed the first world war.

Attribution (this is a republication, the original publication is dated 1965): Turner, L. C. F. "The Role of the General Staffs in July 1914." Australian Journal of Politics & History 11, no. 3 (2008): 305-23. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8497.1965.tb00440.x.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.