• 3-minute read
  • 6th September 2018

Collective Nouns: What They Are and How to Use Them

Collective nouns can be confusing if you’re not sure what they are. They look singular but they describe a group, so should we treat them as singular or plural? In this post, we try to clear up this grammatical mystery as well as outlining exactly what makes a word a ‘collective’ noun.

What Are Collective Nouns?

A collective noun names a group or collection of things or people. In fact, ‘group’ itself is a collective noun, as are ‘team’ and ‘family’. The key is that collective nouns refer to a group whose members can be counted.

A collective noun photo.
A collective noun photo.
(Photo: State Library of Queensland)

Try not to get these confused with mass nouns (otherwise known as ‘uncountable nouns’). Rather than a group, mass nouns refer to an undifferentiated mass of something. For instance, ‘water’ is a mass noun because we can’t have just one water, nor do we have groups of ‘waters’.

Are Collective Nouns Singular or Plural?

Subject–verb agreement is the idea that singular nouns should be paired with singular verbs, while plural nouns should be used with plural verbs. This can be a little complicated with collective nouns, though.

In Australian English, the general rule for collective nouns is:

  • Use a singular verb when treating a collective noun as a single unit.
  • Use a plural verb when treating a collective noun as a group of individuals.

For example, we could say something like:

My family is having a reunion this weekend.

Here, we treat ‘family’ as singular. This is because we’re discussing the family as a whole. By contrast, we could say:

My family are fighting all the time.

In this case, we treat ‘family’ as plural because we’re discussing the family as a group of individuals rather than as a group working together.

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Picking the Right Verb

To decide which verb form to use with a collective noun, remember:

  • When a group is acting as one, use a singular verb.
  • When the members of a group are acting as individuals, use a plural verb.

In practice, you can often use either form in a sentence. For example, we could use a singular or plural verb in the following:

Singular: The team has gone home.

Plural: The team have gone home.

But while both are grammatically correct, each sentence here is slightly different. The first uses the singular verb ‘is’, which implies the team members have gone home to the same place. But the plural verb ‘have’ implies the team members have each gone to their own homes separately.

Care over verb choice is therefore vital for clear, error-free writing.

Terms of Venery

Terms of venery are collective nouns used to describe a group of animals (e.g. a herd of cows or a flock of sheep). We thought we’d finish on this topic because some of them are quite fun!

For example, who wouldn’t love to see kaleidoscope of butterflies or a dazzle of zebras? And anyone who’s ever heard a pandemonium of parrots squawking will agree that the term is a good fit.

Is four enough for a pandemonium of parrots?
Is four enough for a pandemonium?

But what is your favourite term of venery? Comment below and let us know!

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