Personnel and other collective nouns

SAMPLE 1: “The man who claimed to be amilitarypersonnel was not in uniform as at the time of the unfortunate incident but he insisted on parking in front of the building on the ground that he was military personnel.”(Ambode Blames Soldiers for Attack on Mother’s Residence, The Nation, Sunday, May 9, 2016)

The word personneloccurs twice in the excerpt as follows: “a military personnel” and “he was military personnel.” It is important to note that the word personnelis used in the two instances in reference to a single person. In addition to the context which makes it abundantly clear that the reference is to a single person, the indefinite article a(a military personnel) modifying the word military in the first case is a testimony to that fact. The absence of the modifier in the second case raises further question about the grammatical integrity of the text: Is it an inadvertent or motivated omission?

We have said repeatedly that a single person cannot and should not be referred to as a personnel. As a collective noun, the word personnel can neither be pluralized nor modified with the word a orone. Usage examples: 1) Thememo is meant for the attention of all technical personnel. 2) The vehicles are to convey only medical personnel. 3) The organization has a tradition of training and re-training its personnel. 4) All qualified personnel are to register in the Personnel Department. 5) Only senior personnel are entitled to annual leave with pay. 6) Military personnel are kept in a separate section of the estate.

Please note that the noun personnel cannot become plural by the addition of a final –s.

There are many other words whose usage is often similarly confused. One such word is property.

Whenever we use the word property to refer to personal effects or movable items such as shoes, clothes, furniture, television sets, fridges, generators, and even motor cars, we should use it in its singular form. No matter the volume or quantity of such items, the word property should remain in its singular form and the choice of verb should be singular. Please read the following sentences: 1) The landlord has seized the tenant’s property kept in two rooms, saying he won’t release it until and unless he pays all his debt. 2) No matter how long you stay in the UK, your property will remain in this room and it will be intact.  3) Before I woke up, he had gathered all his property and travelled back to our home town. 4) Since he owns little property, he doesn’t need more than one room. 5) Fire destroyed the entire house including his sister’s property kept in one of the rooms. 6) His property consists of a few items all of which are kept in one huge bag. 7) After working for two years, his property is so much that he needs to rent a second room. 8) Thieves broke into the room and made away with almost all his property. 9) He has found a new house and his children are helping to carry her property to the new place. 10) Two trucks carried his property to his newly built house. 11) In those days, slaves were considered part of the personal property of rich men. 12) Shoes and shirts are the most prominent elements of my property.

The word property has been used in its singular form in each of those sentences because it is about personal effects, household items, movable belongings. However, when the word is employed in reference to land and houses, it can be used in the singular sense if the reference is to a singular item or in the plural if the reference is to two or more items. Indeed, whenever the word property is used in the plural by knowledgeable people, the assumption is that the reference is to land/houses. It should not be used in the plural sense if the reference is to personal effects as discussed and illustrated earlier.

Now read the following sentences: 1) The government has decided to sell all its properties in the choicest parts of the country. 2) Properties are more expensive in Lagos than in any other part of Nigeria. 3) I have three uncles who are into the business of buying and selling of properties. 4) There is an uncompleted property which the owner wants to sell at a moderate price. 5) I have refused to buy that property because it is too close to a stream. 6) The prosecution has alleged that the politically exposed persons have acquired the said properties with the proceeds of corruption. 7) Only teachers are allowed to buy and own properties in the estate. 8) I want to acquire a property in an exclusive area. 9) He rejected the property because it was too close to the police barracks. 10) Being in a marshy and undeveloped area, the property should not be expensive.

The word staff also suffers confused usage in the Nigerian scene.As a collective noun, the word can be treated as a singular or plural item.

Please read the following sentences: 1) Thestaff is the single most important force in any establishment. 2) The staff were drawn from various companies in the metropolis. 3) Our staff is an even mix of both male and female workers. 4) All staff are expected to submit their files before the end of the day. 5) All members of staff are trained from time to time. 6) The company has a highly skilled staff. 7) The staff strength has increased by ten. 8) Half of the staff were laid off.

Can the noun be pluralized by the addition of s? Yes and no. Yes, if we are thinking of staffs of different establishments, but no if we are thinking of the staff of a single establishment.  The following sentences, for example, are deficient: 1) The school’s *staffs are committed to their duties.  2) The company’s *staffs are loyal to the chairman. 3) All the *staffs in this unit are to come for the one-week workshop. 4) The chairman would like to address all *staffs of the company tomorrow. 5) The workshop is meant for all the *staffs of this school. 6) The *staffs in our Department have not received their salaries.

It is grammatically improper to have the word staff in a form carrying a final s as it does in each of those sentences.

However, when the reference is to the workers in several establishments, then it is proper to add –s to staff. Now consider the following sentences: 1) There is a forum where all the staffs of the various companies in the conglomerate meet. 2) Should the staffs of the companies belonging to the government and those belonging to private entrepreneurs be placed under the same salary scheme? 3) Representatives of staffs from private and public companies are meeting next month. 4) This consulting firm trains staffs of both government and private companies. 5) The staffs of the companies in the rubber industry will be interacting very soon.

The word staffs in each of those sentences refers to bodies or groups of workers in two or more establishments.

The word can also be used in the verb form. Let’s consider the following sentences: 1) The Department is staffed by highly intelligent and experienced people. 2) It is a well-staffed school, with about seven mathematics teachers and ten chemistry teachers. 3) The major problem of that firm is that of staffing. 4) The unit is staffed exclusively by medical doctors. 5) Of course the kitchen should be staffed by trained caterers. 6) Do you think hospitals are staffed by only doctors and nurses?

The discussion continues next week by God’s grace.