Collective Nouns

If we want to represent certain individual nouns as one entity we can make use of collective nouns. In this lesson, you'll learn about their structure and uses.

Intermediate
"Collective Nouns" in English Grammar

What Are Collective Nouns?

Collective nouns are nouns we use to talk about groups of things, animals, or people.

Why Do We Use Collective Nouns?

Collective nouns are used to refer to a group, as one unit or as individuals. By using collective nouns we can speak about a group of:

  • things: galaxy, forest, stack, wad, etc.
  • animals: army, flock, haul, flight, etc.
  • people: class, band, choir, army, etc.

Check out the examples:

The hive of the bees were working to make honey. → collective noun referring to a group of insects

A harvest of wheat can be seen from here. → collective noun referring to one particular thing

The team was strong and qualified. → collective noun referring to people

How to Use Collective Nouns

Collective nouns have no particular rule as they are individual words, but the only thing that is important to keep in mind is that collective nouns can be used alone or they can be followed by a prepositional phrase.

The class was waiting for the teacher to give the exams.

In this example, the collective noun 'class' is used alone as the subject of the sentence.

He ate a bowl of rice on his own.

In this example, the term 'bowl' is a collective noun that is followed by the prepositional phrase 'of rice.'

Countable and Uncountable Collective Nouns

Collective nouns are supposed to refer to a number or amount as a whole group, as a result, we cannot categorize them into groups of countable and uncountable nouns, however, they can be used with a singular or plural meaning. Sometimes, collective nouns can get 's' or 'es' at the end, but it is important to know that, in this case, we are referring to different groups of the particular noun, or we are talking generally. For example:

The teams are getting ready for the final round. → different teams

I like forests with long trees. → talking generally

These birds fly in huge flocks. → talking generally

Singular or Plural Collective Nouns

Collective nouns can either refer to a particular number of people or things in a group, or the members of a group, as individuals. When collective nouns refer to individual members of a group, they are considered singular. Whenever they refer to a group as a single unit, they are considered plural. However, when it comes to plural or singular meaning there is no change in the formation of the collective noun. Check out the examples for more clarification:

The crowd were shouting because of the final score.

In this example, the collective noun 'crowd' is considered a plural noun since the speaker is referring to individuals.

My favorite choir's concert is in London.

In this example, the term 'choir' is considered singular.

Noun and Verb Agreement

Collective nouns like police, staff, and audience might include individual members or be looked at as a whole unit. For example, police can refer to one police or it can refer to all police members as a unit. So, based on the intention of the speaker, they can either use a singular verb or a plural verb. If the speaker wants to refer to individuals he might use the plural verb and if he wants to refer to something as a whole he might use the singular verb.

The staff were invited to the party.

Here, we can use both 'was' and 'were' based on whether the speaker means the staff as a whole or individuals.

His staff includes both young people and old people.

Here, the speaker is talking about the entire staff and his whole group of employees as one unit.

Let us look at other examples:

My family is sad that I'm moving out.

Here 'family' is considered as one unit, therefore we're using a singular verb.

The panel of executives disagree with the proposal.

Here the members of the panel are performing an action as individuals. In this case, all or some members of the group are doing something independently and the group is not acting together as a unit.

Formal Agreement

Mostly, collective nouns are considered singular in American English. Since there is not any plural 's' at the end of collective nouns, they are obviously used as singular nouns.
In this case, we use singular verbs with them, which is called 'formal agreement' in English Grammar.

The group was trying to edit the whole article.

The herd is grazing in the field.

Notional Agreement

Sometimes, a 'collective noun' is considered plural because the speaker or writer is referring to the participants of a group as individuals, not as a whole. In this case, we use a plural verb with a 'collective noun' that seems to be singular. this is called a notional agreement.

The team were fighting against their biggest rival.

The audience clap for him.

British or American?

Deciding to use which form of the verb is actually quite difficult to even a native English speaker. Keep in mind that usually in the United States and Canada, it is more common to use the singular verb. In the UK, it is more common to use the plural form of verbs.

Tip!

If we want to be specific and clearly show that we are talking about individuals, add words like 'member' or 'officer.' This way it is clear that we must use a plural verb.

The staff members are invited to the party.

It is clarified that we are pointing to more than one.

Proper Collective Nouns

'Proper collective' nouns are usually used with singular verbs unless they are explicit to be plural themselves. Here are some examples.

Samsung is supposed to release a new headphone this year.

Las Vegas Raiders are making themselves ready for the league.

Tip!

Sometimes, proper collective nouns may seem to be 'plural,' but in fact, they are considered singular collective nouns. Check out the example:

Dell Technologies is considered one of the most successful companies in the world.

What Is the Difference between Partitives and Collective Nouns?

There is a slight difference between partitive nouns and collective nouns. Partitives indicate a number, amount, or one part of a particular noun; they do not necessarily refer to the whole group. Collective nouns refer to a group as a whole or as individuals, they do not indicate a number or amount.
Another difference is that partitives can get 's' or 'es' as plural nouns, but collective nouns cannot. Here are some examples:

I used two spoons of sugar in my coffee. → partitive

A troupe of dancers is waiting for their turn. → collective noun

Singular Collective Nouns and Pronouns

When we are using a collective noun with a singular meaning, usually the pronoun it is used to refer to the collective noun, but when we do not know the gender of the group members or the group, we can also use the genderless singular they as the pronoun. Check out the examples:

I enjoyed teaching the class online; they seemed really smart.

In this example, since the lessons were taught online the teacher couldn't guess the gender.

The bouquet is in my room. It smells good.

Review

Whenever we are talking about a group of people whether the whole group or only an individual, we should use collective nouns, such as:

  • a panel of judges
  • a bouquet of flowers
  • a school of fish
  • a herd of cattle

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