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I don't understand why there is pronoun 'their' in the following sentence:

The class listens carefully when their teacher gives instructions.

Is it because 'the class' is treated as a collective noun here ?

And what with such sentences:

The team is/are wearing their new uniforms. The team is/are doing their best today.

Does the pronoun 'their' only apply to nouns understood as plural? Which form is correct in above sentences?

Thank you in advance.

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In this case English speakers do not conform the pronouns to strict grammar. This is because in your example "the class" is not a concept or an activity. It is a set of persons who are listening to the teacher. One could say:

The class listens carefully when its teacher gives instructions.

Or one could say:

The members of the class listen carefully when their teacher gives instructions.

But as you have noted, many native English speakers will treat "class" as singular noun when conjugating the verb but treat it is plural when choosing the pronoun.

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In American English, the rule is that a collective noun is singular. "The team is ...", not "The team are ..." I understand that in British English, the convention is to use a plural verb with a collective noun when, in context, you are referring to the individual members of the group. I'll leave further discussion of UK conventions to someone more knowledgeable.

So the first sentence should be, "The class listens when its teacher gives instructions." Note whoever wrote the sentence used the singular form of the verb "listens", so it is elementary consistency to then use a singular pronoun.

Likewise, "The team is doing its best today."

I find the statement about uniforms more difficult. I would say, "The team members are wearing their new uniforms." You could also say, "The team is wearing its new uniforms".

That said, while grammarians and English teachers say this is the rule, native speakers routinely break it. If you said, "The team are wearing their new uniforms", I doubt that most English speakers would question it.

  • This sentence from @Jay: 'That said, while grammarians and English teachers say this is the rule, native speakers routinely break it. ' tells you what you should think of self-appointed 'grammarians'. The language is defined not by them but by the people who use it. – JeremyC Nov 4 '19 at 22:37
  • I once worked in an organisation (in the UK) that produced formal published reports every week into the work of government departments. From time to time a grammarian would declare that a 'department' being singular required singular verbs and pronouns. After a few weeks of that, we would all realise that describing a group of human beings as 'it' did not work in all contexts. it depends on what is your emphasis: the group as a whole or the individual members who form that group. – JeremyC Nov 4 '19 at 22:39
  • @JeremyC "depends on your emphasis" etc. I guess that comes down to your intuition, and yours may be different from mine. To me, if you want to talk about the members of the group, it seems natural to say "the members" or "employees" or whatever. Like, "This department works on small projects." The department is doing it as a group. "This department wears suits and ties." Seems a little odd to me. Does the department get dressed as a group? I suppose you would say "The department wear suits and ties". I would say "The employees in this department wear suits and ties". – Jay Nov 5 '19 at 14:57

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