Collective Nouns

Collective nouns

Collective nouns draw mistakes like a magnet. If you’re not sure how to use them correctly, read on and gain a better knowledge of this topic!

A collective noun is a noun which describes a group of people, animals or things as a unit. Collective nouns (team, crowd, government, company, family, class, committee, staff, a herd of cattle, a bunch of flowers, etc.) therefore refer to groups. Those students of English who are familiar with collective nouns know that these nouns are no fun when it comes to pairing them with verbs and pronouns.

Collectives can be used with singular or plural verbs:

  • The staff is having a meeting at the moment.
  • The staff are on holiday.

The collective noun in the first sentence is paired with a singular verb, while the collective noun in the second sentence is paired with a plural verb. Why? The rule concerning the use of collective nouns is simple:

  1. When the group is acting as a unit – when the individual members of the group are acting together as one – then the noun is singular and requires a singular verb (the pronouns that refer to the collective noun are also singular).
  2. When the group is not acting as a unit, the noun is plural and requires a plural verb (the pronouns that refer to the collective noun are also plural). In this case, we regard the members of the group as separate entities.

Let’s return to the two sentences and explain them. In the first sentence, all the staff members are present at the meeting. They are all sitting in the same room, doing the same thing – having a meeting. They are a unit acting together as one, hence the verb is singular. In the second sentence, the situation is different. Here the members of the staff aren’t acting as a single unit. They aren’t vacationing in the same place: some have gone to various exotic places – like Maui or Papua New Guinea, and some have chosen to stay at home and hang out with their family and friends. The members of the staff aren’t vacationing in the same place as a unit, hence the verb is plural. Every single member of the group is acting individually.

Remember: You choose a singular verb if you think of the group as a single unit, and a plural verb if you think of the group as a number of individuals.

More examples:

  • The committee is meeting again tomorrow. (The members of the committee will be acting as a single unit. They will all be doing the same thing – having a meeting.)
  • The meeting is over. The committee have gone home. (Here the members of the committee aren’t acting together as a single unit. Every person in the committee has gone home separately; therefore, every single committee member is acting individually.)
  • Our football team is winning. (The team is acting as a unit: all members of the team are in the field, playing football.)
  • Our team drive their own cars to and from matches. (Every single member of the team is acting individually.)
  • The audience is enjoying the performance. (The audience is acting as a unit: every single member of the audience is enjoying the performance.)
  • The audience rise to their feet and clap their hands. (Because it would be strange to imagine all these people on one pair of feet and having one collective pair of hands, we need the plural verb and pronoun. Remember the following: body parts, no matter how unified the group, always belong to separate people. Don’t use a singular verb and pronoun in such cases.)



The Treatment of Collective Nouns in British and American English

Britons and Americans tend to treat collective nouns differently. According to writer Bonnie Trenga, who wrote an article on collective nouns for Grammar Girl – Quick and Dirty Tips website, Americans tend to treat collective nouns as single units, so for them it’s more common to use the singular verb unless they’re definitely talking about individuals. In British usage it’s the opposite; it’s more common to use a plural verb. Let me illustrate:

  • Manchester United are playing Arsenal next week. (BrE)
  • Manchester United is playing Arsenal next week. (AmE)
  • Bon Jovi are a great band. (BrE)
  • Bon Jovi is a great band. (AmE)

As you can see, Britons prefer to use a plural verb after the names of sports teams and bands. In American English, it’s usually quite the opposite: Americans prefer to use a singular verb in such cases. Please note that names of sports teams and bands that are plural in form take a plural verb in both BrE and AmE:

  • The Rolling Stonesare a famous band. (BrE and AmE)
  • The New York Yankeesare a famous baseball team. (BrE and AmE)

Collective nouns naming organizations and institutions are usually treated as singular in American English and plural (sometimes as singular too) in British English:

  • The government is expected to announce its tax proposals tomorrow. (AmE)
  • The government are in agreement. (BrE)
  • The corporation has awarded most of its employees. (AmE)
  • The BBC are planning to hire more staff next week. (BrE)
  • Congress has rejected the recent presidental proposal on firearms. (AmE)

Remember: Collective nouns are treated as plural more often in British than in American English.

The collective nouns police, people and cattle are always plural in both British and American English:

  • The police are here.
  • The cattle are grazing in the field.

The collective nouns couple and pair denoting two people functioning as a unit are usually plural in British and singular in American English:

  • An elderly couple live next door. (BrE)
  • An elderly couple lives next door. (AmE)

When two people forming a couple or pair act as individuals, it’s essential to use a plural verb:

  • The couple are not vacationing together this summer. (two people doing two different things)

Pronoun Agreement with Collective Nouns

Pronouns have to agree in person, number and gender with their antecedents (a word or phrase which a pronoun refers back to). If the members of the group are acting as a unit, then the collective noun must take a singular pronoun:

  • The cast (antecedent) will present itsfinal performance tonight.

If the members of the group are acting as a unit, then the collective noun must take a singular pronoun:

  • The audience (antecedent) clap their (Remember body parts?The members of the audience don’t own a collective pair of hands. Use a plural pronoun.)

You can also use the of-phrase to express plurality:

  • The membersof the audience clap their

This way you can’t go wrong.

Never say:

  • The audience claps its (This sentence suggests that the members of the audience share one pair of hands when it’s clapping time! On the bright side, you would definitely make an English-speaking person laugh out loud.)

Also don’t forget to correctly use relative pronouns with collective nouns. When a collective noun naming a group of people is treated as singular, use the relative pronouns that or which:

  • His team is one that/whichworks very hard.

When such a noun is treated as plural, use the pronoun who:

  • The team areprofessionals who have volunteered for the task.

If you’re not sure whether to treat a collective noun as singular or plural (or when you’re having trouble identifying one), you can always consult a good dictionary. Cambridge Dictionaries Online by Cambridge University Press are an excellent choice.