The word ‘staff’ poses a problem for many users of English in Hong Kong. What exactly does it refer to? Is it singular or plural? Is it a countable noun or an uncountable noun?
In fact, grammatically speaking, ‘staff' is a singular count noun. However, it is generally used in English to refer not to a single individual but to a collection of individuals. ‘Staff’ means ‘all the people employed by a particular organisation’. So when we use the word ‘staff’ in English, we are using a singular noun to refer to a group of people.
There are a number of words like this in English. Another one is the word 'audience', which is a singular count noun but is always used to refer to a collection of all the people attending a show or performance. Sometimes this kind of noun is referred to as a 'collective noun'.
For Hong Kong writers, it's important to remember that 'staff' (and similar words, like 'audience') cannot be used to refer to just one person. So for example, we cannot say:
This sentence is clearly talking about an individual, not a collection of people. To refer to an individual like this, we need to use an expression like 'staff member' or 'member of staff':
Because 'staff' refers to ALL the employees of an organisation, it is not necessary to use the word in the plural:
Exactly the same is true of the way we use the word 'audience'
One final point to remember: there are a few contexts where words like 'staff' and 'audience' CAN be used in the plural. If we are talking about people employed by more than one organisation, for example, we have more than one set of staff and can use the plural form to describe them:
Similarly, if we are talking about more than one audience group, the plural can be used:
About this blog
This blog arises from keeping an eye on English in Hong Kong. I often use signs, notices and advertisements that I see as starting points to write about English issues that commonly challenge Hong Kong writers.