What is a collective noun?

A definition of collective nouns

Collective nouns are nouns that describe a collection, such as “pack,” “gang,” and “flock.” They can be used to describe groups of people, animals or objects. For example:

  • A pack of dogs
  • A gang of thugs
  • A flock of sheep

They are used with both singular and plural verbs, but the rules on this are not strict.  Usage of single or plural verbs reflects your definition of a collective noun as a single unit or a grouping of individuals. The other factor is if you’re using the American or British approach.

How to use collective nouns

Using verbs with collective nouns – singular or plural?

A verb is a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence, and forming the main part of the predicate of a sentence.

Should we use singular or plural verbs when using collective nouns? This depends. For example, when using the collective noun ‘couple’, are you describing them as separate people? If so, then you would use the plural:

The couple are supporting different football teams.

But if you are treating the couple as a single unit, you would use a singular verb, as in the example below:

Each couple is choosing which hotel to stay at.

There are no hard rules. You should judge the use of singular or plural verbs on each different situation to reflect if you are thinking of the couple as a single unit or individuals.

British vs. American Usage

Britons and Americans use collective nouns slightly differently. Americans are more likely to use collective nouns to describe a single unit, while the British are more likely to use it to describe a grouping of individuals.

For example, you would be more likely to hear an American say “The team is out on the pitch” than “The team are out on the pitch”.

Using the British approach would sound odd to an American. For example, “Everton are winning the game” would be the British approach, while an American say “Everton is winning the game”.

Institutions

While use of singular or plural verbs can depend on the message you’re trying to get across and if you’re taking a British or American approach, some strict rules do apply when using the names of institutions.

The singular verb is considered the proper approach to use for institutions like the House of Commons or Congress. For example, “The House of Commons is in session”. This reflects that institutions are seen as a single unit.

Animate vs. Inanimate Nouns

Another rule when using collective nouns is the difference between animate (alive) and inanimate (not alive) nouns. Collective nouns should always be  animate, and animate nouns can be either single or plural. Inanimate objects, such as “salt” or “hat”, are technically referred to as mass nouns (uncountable nouns) and should always be singular. For example, “The salt is very bitter” or “My hat is very cool”. You wouldn’t say “This salt are” or “My hat are”.

Be Consistent

The key thing is to be consistent. If you are using a singular verb when using a particular collective noun, then stick with it. Don’t mix them up. For example, if you said “The band is rehearsing this morning, but they are still drunk from last night” then you have mixed up the singular and plural. You would be better off sticking to the plural or singular.

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    One thought on “What is a collective noun?

    1. It is perfectly acceptable to refer to a person as they, because there is no gender non-specific in English. In the case of the abouve they is fine because you are referring to the individual members of the band not the band as an object. The key thing is to be consistent. If you are using a singular verb when using a particular collective noun, then stick with it. Don’t mix them up. For example, if you said “The band is rehearsing this morning, but they are still drunk from last night” then you have mixed up the singular and plural. You would be better off sticking to the plural or singular.

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