I want to ask about the conjugation of a verb regarding a specific noun.

In English, family is treated as the plural 'they' -

My family went to the beach
They went to the beach

I was asked in a Spanish online test to complete the sentence with the pretérito perfecto and the word enscribed in the sentence:

Mi familia [10] (vivir) en muchos países.

I thought that as a family contains more than one person, I thought it would be "ellos" so I wrote

Mi familia han vivido en muchos países.

but the answer appears to be

Mi familia ha vivido en muchos países.

i.e. the él/ella/usted form

I'm confused here. Why am I using the 3rd person singular rather than the 3rd person plural?

  • You should clarify whether you are among the people who say, "my family goes to the beach" or those who say "my family go to the beach." The way you set up your example, we can't tell which approach you use in English. It would be helpful to understand your thinking, to be able to focus an answer where you need it. Dec 5 '19 at 7:37
  • Even if we know we are talking about many people, as the noun is a singular it has to be conjugated with the "el/ella" pronoun.
    – Mike
    Dec 6 '19 at 19:21

You are referring to a difference that exists between Spanish and English in which nouns that are singular for describing groups of people or things could have plural verbs or pronouns (when following a British convention)

The management board were unable to agree with each other.
The team were walking through the gate in ones and twos.
The audience haven’t all arrived yet.
Not all the staff are happy about the new arrangements.

The examples, as explained in this site) show that

"Usage of singular or plural also depends on whether you are emphasising the individuals in the group or the group as a single entity"

In Spanish, on the contrary, such thing is not allowed, singular nouns follow the corresponding singular mode regardless. Where, the CORRECT way is to say

La audiencia aún no ha arrivado


La audiencia aún no han arrivado

Note though that, as for your example alone, it does not translate differently:

My family went to the beach
- What are you saying?
[that] They went to the beach

would turn in Spanish as

Mi familia se fue a la playa
- ¿Qué cosa dices?
[que] (ellos) Se fueron a la playa


This is a complex topic in Spanish. In principle the verb must always agree with the noun in number. There are no exceptions of the kind that English shows in, for example, the use of some collective nouns like "family" or "government" or proper names of institutions. So if the subject of your sentence is mi familia then the verb must always be in the singular.

There are a few apparent exceptions to this rule with some noun phrases that include quantifiers such as la mayoría, la mayor parte, la mitad, el 25%. These are singular, but with them you can use either singular or plural in the verb.

La mayoría no quería ir a la playa. ← This is OK.
La mayoría no querían ir a la playa. ← This is also OK, a bit more colloquial.

There are no such exceptions with groups like familia, pareja, matrimonio, trío, cuarteto, etc. There is, though, the possibility of using the plural in subsequent propositions that refer back to one of these groups. That is, it's permissible to speak of mi familia (singular) and immediately refer back to them in the plural:

Mi familia viajó a la playa. Era la primera vez que visitaban el Caribe. Les gustó mucho. Dijeron que quieren volver.

The verb viajó is in the singular, agreeing with familia, but the rest of the verbs (where the tacit subject is mi familia) are all plural, as well as the indirect object pronoun les, because mi familia is semantically plural. This is actually the natural way of expressing this in Spanish. If you used all verbs in the singular, even though it would be strictly speaking correct, it would sound extremely awkward.

There is also an exception, only found in colloquial speech, when the collective noun includes the speaker; in this case a singular collective noun phrase can go with a plural verb in the first person plural. There are not many possible examples for this though:

Toda la familia iremos a la playa.

For reference: the Nueva Gramática de la Lengua Española (NGLE) deals with this on section 12.4k and around.

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