The NHS needs to have <fewer/less> staff ...

Discussion in 'English Only' started by lucyinlondn, Sep 3, 2009.

  1. lucyinlondn New Member

    English - England
    On Radio4's Today programme this morning one of the broadcasters kept repeating the phrase "The NHS needs to have fewer staff". I always thought that "fewer" applied only to countable items. Can you count "staff" or does the sentence make sense because it infers "members of staff"? Would "The NHS needs to have less staff" be better?
  2. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    Welcome to the forum, Lucy

    "Staff" is one of those collective nouns that often raise questions.

    I would go with "fewer staff" (assuming that it's understood that you are referring in a shorthand way to "staff members.")
  3. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    Indeed it does. Here is one of the threads discussing it:
    Collective nouns - staff <is, are> ...

    I found it by putting staff into the Dictionary and Thread Title Search box at the top of the page, scrolling down to below the definition and reading the thread titles that are linked there.

    EDIT: How embarrassing! I forgot to welcome you to the forum. Welcome, lucyinlondn. :)
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2009
  4. Cagey post mod (English Only / Latin)

    English - US
    Welcome to the forum, lucyinlondon.

    The BrE speakers in this thread regard "staff" as plural, when they are choosing the verb, at least:
    Collective nouns - The staff <is, are> ....
    Choosing 'fewer' would seem consistent with this.

    Speakers of American English tend to treat "staff" as singular: "the staff is ...." I would expect users of American English to say "less staff".

    However, the situation apparently is not so clear cut. For instance, you are an speaker of British English, and you would say "less staff". At this moment, a search of Google news produces: UK: 10 for less staff/ 32 for fewer staff. Even American newspapers prefer "fewer staff": 58 for less staff/ 293 for fewer staff. The usage seems to favor "fewer", but a substantial number people would say "less".

    It seems that in this context, more English speakers on both side of the Atlantic think of the individual members of the collective group that makes up the staff.

    Edit: Quicker posters than I posted as I was writing this.
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2009
  5. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    This is a very interesting point (one I didn't know till now), and it's not covered in that previous thread cited. 'Staff' is not simply one of those group nouns that can take (dialect-dependent) singular or plural agreement, like 'committee', 'army' and many others.

    All the others are singular nouns, sometimes followed by plural verbs and pronouns. 'Staff' on the other hand can be a plural noun. Here's why: the demonstratives never vary in agreement.

    :tick:This committee has decided.
    :cross:These committee have decided.
    ?? This committee have decided.

    :tick:These staff are redundant.
    ?:cross:This staff is redundant.

    That last one is impossible for me, but there might be others (AE speakers?) who accept it. In any case, this shows that 'staff' is a plural noun (like 'police'). That it's countable can be further shown by counting it:

    :tick:Three staff have resigned.
    :tick:Three police have resigned.
  6. xjm Senior Member

    WI, USA
    English - USA
    "This staff is redundant" works for me if we are talking about an entire group of people--say, the building janitorial staff is redundant because the department-wide janitorial staff can perform all the same functions.
  7. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    There several previous threads about staff singular/plural.
    See collective staff

    As I recall, one of them makes the point that in BE staff is almost invariably plural. A sentence beginning "The staff is ..." conjures up images of anything but a group of people.
    This is unlike many other collective terms which BE happily regards as singular or plural depending on context.

    In AE, consistent with the collective pattern, staff is almost invariably singular.
  8. Cagey post mod (English Only / Latin)

    English - US
    My point in post #4 was that this invariability seems to break down when we are talking about quantities/ numbers of people. At least one rough measure suggests that for the most part, both BrE and AmE then think of staff as plural, a collection of individuals, rather than a unit functioning as one.

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