Collecting the Truth About Collective Nouns



American English offers us words as tools for efficient and clear communication. One such tool is the collective noun, a noun that is singular in form but singular or plural in meaning depending on the context.

A collective noun represents a group of people, animals, or things. Examples include:

band flock bunch
crowd herd fleet
pack hive pack
staff litter range
team school stack

These words allow us to suggest the components without having to identify everyone or everything in the group. This same economy however can raise questions about how to use collective nouns accurately and consistently.

To help keep our mental muscles strong and flexible for careful writing, we’ll here brush up on the basics.

Collective Nouns: Subject-Verb Agreement

When we refer to a staff or a bunch, how do we decide on verb agreement, understanding the noun can be plural or singular?

It depends on whether we want to emphasize the collective noun as a unit or as an umbrella term for individuals. Compare the following:

Our staff is the most professional you’ll find in the industry.
Our staff are highly competent at their specializations.

The first sentence underscores the group as one unit. The second conveys an aggregate of different people.

Including a prepositional phrase after the collective-noun subject can help emphasize both the unit and its parts with either a singular or a plural verb depending on the context and intent.

In the following, each collective noun is a singular subject (unit) with a singular verb. The plural object of the prepositional phrase simply adds description and detail:

The crowd of fans is roaring for an encore.
The herd of cows is grazing over there.
The litter of cats is nursing right now.

The same collective nouns with prepositional phrases can be used with a plural verb to create a stronger image of many individual components—i.e., the prepositional phrase becomes an extension of the verb:

The crowd of fans are split between the Yankees and the Red Sox.
The herd of cows are wandering in the pasture.
The litter of cats are competing for space to nurse from the mother.

Note too that collective nouns can be made plural, making verb agreement obvious:

The fleets of ships are heading out to sea.
The stacks of papers you need are on the desk.

Similarly, a collective noun is clearly singular if it is preceded by a singular determiner such as that or a: That band is …, A flock is …

For even more insight, review our earlier article Subject and Verb Agreement with Collective Nouns.

Collective Nouns: Consistency

Another factor to watch for when using collective nouns is consistent usage. Consider the following sentences if they were to appear within the same paragraph:

The staff is divided into four divisions.
The business’s staff are specialists in their fields.

Our preceding section justifies why one collective noun would use a singular verb and the other a plural. However, some grammarians and careful writers would call it bad form and style to switch between the two, particularly if the sentences are close or, more awkward still, in the same sentence:

The staff is divided into four divisions, and they are specialists in their fields.

A better treatment would be:

The staff is divided into four divisions of specialists.

If a collective noun appears on different pages or in separate chapters or sections, we believe it acceptable to alternate between plural and singular for desired emphasis.

For even more insight, review our earlier article Collective Nouns and Consistency.

As with any other grammatical principle, the key to using collective nouns is to ensure they add to crisp, clear, compact sentences. Whenever they start to disagree with their verbs or become inconsistent, they turn into obstacles. The careful, attentive writer can always find the right fix to keep composition flowing and moving.

Posted on Wednesday, October 18, 2017, at 10:00 am

2 Comments on Collecting the Truth About Collective Nouns

2 responses to “Collecting the Truth About Collective Nouns”

  1. Erik S. says:

    “The staff is divided into four divisions, and they are specialists in their fields.”
    Wouldn’t “they” refer back to “divisions”?

    • By definition, a specialist is a “person who devotes himself or herself to one subject or to one particular branch of a subject or pursuit,” i.e., it describes a person or people. In this sentence, “they,” a personal pronoun, would thus refer to “staff” as a collection of people instead of to “divisions” as organized parts of a larger entity.

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