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
What are "Collective Nouns" in English Grammar?

What Are Collective Nouns?

Collective nouns are nouns that refer to a group or collection of people, animals, or things considered as a single entity. They are used to describe a group of individuals or things that are acting together as a unit.

Why Do We Use Collective Nouns?

Collective nouns are used to refer to a group of people, animals, or things, either *as a single entity or as individuals within the group.

  • things: galaxy, forest, stack, wad, etc.
  • animals: pack, 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 do not follow a specific rule, as they are individual words. However, it is important to keep in mind that collective nouns may stand alone or 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 refer to a group as a whole, so they cannot be categorized as countable or uncountable. However, they can be used with both singular and plural meanings. Sometimes, collective nouns may take the plural form with 's' or 'es', but this typically refers to different groups of the same noun or is used in a general sense. 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 refer to a specific number of people or things in a group, or to the members of a group as individuals. When a collective noun refers to individual members of a group, it is considered singular. When it refers to a group as a single unit, it is considered plural. However, whether a collective noun is singular or plural, there is no change in its formation.

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.

The choir sings beautifully together.

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 officer 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 they might use the plural verb, while a singular verb would be more appropriate for referring to the group as a whole.

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 commonly 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

Occasionally, a collective noun is considered plural because the speaker or writer is referring to the members of a group as individuals, rather than as a unified whole. In these cases, a plural verb is used with the collective noun, even though it may seem singular. This is known as notional agreement.

The team were fighting against their biggest rival.

The audience clap for him.

British or American?

Deciding which form of the verb to use with collective nouns can be challenging, even for native English speakers. Generally, in the United States and Canada, it is more common to use the singular verb form, while in the UK, the plural form is more commonly used.

Tip!

If we want to be specific and clearly indicate that we are talking about individual members or officers of a collective noun group, we can add words like 'member' or 'officer.' This makes it clear that a plural verb should be used.

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 typically paired with singular verbs, unless they are explicitly plural in form. 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.

Partitives vs. Collective Nouns

partitive nouns and collective nouns are distinct in their meanings. Partitive nouns indicate a specific amount or portion of a particular noun, and do not necessarily refer to the entire group. Collective nouns, on the other hand, refer to a group as a whole or as individuals, without indicating a specific number or amount. Another difference is that partitive nouns can take a plural form with 's' or 'es', while collective nouns typically do not.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 a collective noun is used with a singular meaning, the pronoun 'it' is typically used to refer to the collective noun. However, when the gender of the group members or the group is unknown or unspecified, the gender-neutral singular pronoun 'they' can also be used. 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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