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What Is a Collective Noun?

Updated on September 30, 2022Grammar

A collective noun is a word or phrase that refers to a group of people or things as one entity. One common error that arises from using collective nouns is subject-verb disagreement: Writers often become confused about whether to treat a collective noun as singular or plural. While collective nouns are mostly treated as singular, there are exceptions.

Collective nouns represent more than one person or thing in a class. It isn’t possible to have just one lion in a pride, and a single flower does not make a bouquet. Thus, a collective noun always describes a plurality of one kind or another.

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This mental image of “multiple” sometimes causes us to choose the wrong verb tense with a collective noun.

The choir are singing to a sold-out hall for the third time in a row. They are performing A German Requiem by Brahms tonight.

The choir is singing to a sold-out hall for the third time in a row. It is performing A German Requiem by Brahms tonight.

From the example above, we can see that the choir, though composed of many people, is a singular unit. One can assume that they will perform the Brahms requiem as one. It is possible that each singer will start the piece and proceed according to his or her own speed, resulting in a cacophony. But that would be unlikely. That is why our choir uses the singular verb is rather than the plural verb are. It is also why the choir takes the pronoun it rather than they.

The past continuous tense affords a wonderful respite from this subject-verb agreement problem. We get this break because in the past continuous tense, first-person and third-person verb forms are the same.

I was singing to a sold-out hall for the third time in a row.

The choir was singing to a sold-out hall for the third time in a row.

Are collective nouns singular or plural?

The team is or are? The audience is or are? There are times when we use collective nouns that would normally require a singular verb, but because of the context in which they are used, a plural verb fits better. This happens when members of the group stop acting as a cohesive unit and begin acting as individuals.

Today, the committee decides the fate of John’s proposal.

In this example, the collective noun “committee” is a group that has a unified purpose today: deciding the fate of John’s proposal.

John’s proposal is so unusual that the committee are scratching their heads and furtively glancing at each other in surprise.

In this example, the committee are acting as individuals; it is extremely unlikely that they are scratching their heads and glancing at each other in unison, like an odd game of Simon Says. Therefore, the committee now gets the plural verb are.

Similar decisions must be made when we write about animals.

The herd is grazing quietly in the meadow.

Now that they have seen the wolf, the herd are bolting off in all directions.

The act that is performed as a unit gets a singular verb, while the other gets a plural one.

It is interesting to note that when a decision needs to be made about whether a collective noun is singular or plural and the answer is ambiguous, American English will almost always default to a singular verb, while British English writers will often choose a plural. At the top of the list of contentious collective nouns is family.

My family is predominantly blond-haired.
(American English)

My family are predominantly blond-haired.
(British English)

Some collective nouns that are always singular or plural

Everyone, everybody, no one, and nobody are always singular.

Everyone are entitled to an opinion.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

No one want to hear John’s crazy ideas for waste recycling.

No one wants to hear John’s crazy ideas for waste recycling.

For reasons that can only be explained by tradition, “police,” when used as a collective noun, is always plural in both American and British English.

Police are investigating a suspicious death on Reaper Street.

The Grammar Police plan to arrest three individuals involved in a subject-verb disagreement.

However illogical it may seem, “police force” is singular—again, traditionally speaking.

The Toronto police force is exquisitely disciplined.

Collective nouns for people and animals

Collective nouns for groups of people, fish, and other animals are diverse and numerous, and each term comes with its own fascinating history. Many terms for groups of animals were first recorded in The Book of St. Albans, published in 1486, and their use flourished among hunters. The terms for groups of people are equally interesting. For instance, did you know that according to Merriam-Webster, the term “a panel of experts” evolved from pannellus, a diminutive Latin word for a piece of cloth, and that this term was once used to describe pieces of parchment on which jury lists were written?

Such collective nouns have such individual origins that there is no way to learn them all except to look them up. Three cheers for the internet!

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