Collective Nouns in the English Language

What are collective nouns and what is so interesting about them? A collective noun by its meaning refers to a group of entities (animate or inanimate, such as people or things). The main issue with the collective nouns is whether they should be used as a singular or plural. In this and following text we will shed some light on this “problem” in simplified, and hopefully, useful way.

Examples of Collective Nouns

A collective noun is one that is singular in form and denotes a number of individuals […]. — Fowler

Here are some of the nouns that “denote number or individuals”: audience, choir, army, board, family, committee, flock, multitude, jury, government; we count into this group and names of the animals such as deer, grouse, sheep, trout and names of political entities: the United States, the Vatican, the Commons, Congress.

Are they used in plural or singular?

That depends on one important thing: emphasis. If you are referring to the single entities, use singular:

The Roman army is immense.

But, you can view these nouns as denoting list of individuals, so you use plural (logical plural, how it is called in the grammars):

The jury were told to retire.

Determiners count also

In linguistics, a collective noun is a word used to define a group of objects, where “objects” can be people, animals, emotions, inanimate things, concepts, or other things. For example, in the phrase “a pride of lions,” pride is a collective noun. — Wikipedia

If the noun is preceded by a singular determiner, that is, if there is a word in font of the collective noun that tells us that the noun must be singular, we use singular form. Example of these determiners: a, an, each, every, this.

Each government is independent.

Form a — of requires plural

See the example:

A group of children were playing on a see-saw.*

British VS American English collective nouns

MORE ON NOUNS

Read the next part about collective nouns.

Online practice for English nouns.

This is one rather interesting fact: collective nouns that refer to a large or indeterminate number of people (government, mob, staff) are used in British English as either singular or plural, whereas in American English they are always used as singular:

BrE:
Iceland’s government is on the point of collapse.
I have to say that the Government are making themselves look ridiculous.

AmE:
The American Government Is Spending, But What Exactly Is It Buying?

Names of countries as collective nouns

Names of countries can be followed by plural verbs if the noun refers to a people (representatives) of that country.

Example:

Germany [= the German team] were in good form, winning 3-0 against France.*

References: How to Write Better English* by Robert Allen; Fowler's Modern English Usage.

Published by

Romeo Mlinar

Languagebits.com Author

6 thoughts on “Collective Nouns in the English Language”

  1. This is an excellent discussion of one of the most thorny ideas in the grammar of English. I’ve been greatly educated.

  2. :)) Good reply, Ksenya! To refer to an individual item “a piece of” is used. For example: “This piece of news is old”. In journalism there are terms such as “top piece”, “new piece”…

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