Uh, oh. Did I just make you question how you wrote that last email? Or did you just talk yourself into a difference concerning magical staffs versus the staff of your office? It’s not that simple, folks.
Here’s an example of a subject-verb pairing you might write fairly frequently if you’re in the business world, and I’m sorry to say that the “staff is” vs. “staff are” choice isn’t a matter of wizardry vs. human resources—though, maybe if you really get into a conversation about jobs at the Ministry of Magic, it might get a tad more complicated.
You are correct that if you’re talking about wizardry and warlocks, the correct usage would be “the staff is.” That’s the easy one. A staff, or a pole or rod that denotes authority and/or gives support, is a singular object.
However, the more complicated part of this conversation pertains to your office staff. Okay, maybe your office staff can be complicated on multiple levels, but focusing in on your verb choice, you have to pay attention. The answer changes depending on your use.
“Staff” is a collective noun—others include “group,” “band,” “herd,” “array,” “board,” “panel,” and “crowd.” Before you run away from the jargon, all “collective noun” means is that all of the parts within the collective sometimes act together and sometimes act individually.
The trick to knowing the correct verb is knowing whether you’re talking about the whole or the different parts within it.
- The staff is all present for the workshop. (They are a group, and their actions are being discussed as one.)
- The staff are assembling parts of the presentation. (The staff members are undertaking different tasks in this example, while still working together as a whole.)
- The staff is volunteering at a local soup kitchen. (Again, they are all doing the same thing. And kudos for their community involvement!)
- The staff are handling the food line, handing out utensils and plates, serving the visitors, and offering napkins. (The staff members each have their own tasks here again.)
Staff can work as a singular noun or a plural noun depending on its usage. Your job is simply to adjust accordingly. Easy right?
Now if the staff has a magical staff, or if they each have their own staffs, things might start to get complicated, but we’ll leave that grammatical equation to the fantasy-writing professionals.
Business communications are all about getting it right. It’s time to pay attention.
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