Deploying collective nouns is a problematic aspect of English usage for many a second-language speaker. Collective nouns refer to entire groups of people, animals, or things that share similarities or relationships.
A collective noun is generally used to describe a group as a single entity. Like the letters of a language, collective nouns are mainly to be committed to heart. One is better off simply accepting and trying to remember the most common collective nouns than attempting to figure them out logically. Collective nouns make it easy to conceive of people or things in a class or category.
By implication, it is not possible to have just one lion in a pride, and a single flower does not make a bouquet. Thus, a collective noun always describes a plurality of one kind or another. Collective nouns are often expressed in phrasal forms such as “a bevy of ladies” and “an album of photographs”.At other times, the collective noun could be used alone with examples such as committee, choir, audience and congregation.
The rest of this article will discuss the categories of collective nouns and the grammatical confusion characterising their usages.
Collective nouns are in different categories, with four of them identified below:
The first category is the general “collection nouns”. This category has words such as collection, set, group, multitude and so on. The second category encompasses nouns denoting multitudes of humans or animals. Examples are crowd, herd, swarm, etc. The third category comprises nouns denoting particular spatial configurations of multiple objects. Some of these nouns are stack, pile, heap and bunch. The fourth category consists of nouns denoting institutions or groups of humans formed for some official purposes such as committee, council, team and army. That said, the choice of verbs for collective nouns is often problematic given the mental image of being multiple and also due to the notional interpretation of their usages.
Beginning with the notional interpretation, the idea conveyed by collective nouns, especially those denoting institutions or groups of humans formed for some official purposes, can be difficult to handle in terms of their verbal choice. Consider the sentences below:
- The choir are ready to perform (nonstandard).
- The choir is ready to perform (standard).
In the example above, sentence 2 is considered standard because the collective noun, choir, is acting in unison even though it is composed of different persons who are playing different roles towards a single goal. On the other hand of the notional interpretation, “choir” will attract the plural verb in the sentence below because the persons constituting the group are acting in disaccord.
- The choir is in disagreement over who should handle the instruments (nonstandard).
- The choir are in disagreement over who should handle the instruments (standard).
This notional interpretation also happens with animals. For instance, herd which means a large group of animals, especially hoofed mammals that live together or are kept together as livestock, can also attract either a singular or a plural verb.
- The herd are often seen grazing quietly (nonstandard).
- The herd is often seen grazing quietly (standard).
The sentence above takes a singular verb because the grazing of the herd is considered a coordinated movement in unison. In the sentences below, the choice of the plural verb will be appropriate because the herd are described in disparity:
- The herd was seen bolting in different directions at the sight of the wolf (nonstandard).
- The herd were seen bolting in different directions at the sight of the wolf (standard).
In some situations, it is difficult to determine whether a collective noun is acting in unison or separately. When this is the case, British English uses the plural verb while the American variety uses the singular verb. One noun in this category is “family”.
My family is known for our imposing stature (American English).
My family are known for our imposing stature (British English).
As an exception, the collective noun, police, is used with the plural verb in the standard usage of both British and American Englishes.
The police are committed to the protection of lives and property (standard).
The police is committed to the protection of lives and property (nonstandard).
Next, the use of pronouns with collective nouns also deserves mention. When the collective noun is used in the singular sense, the singular pronoun should be used, too.
Also, deploy plural pronouns alongside collective nouns in the plural sense:
The choir is performing tonight, and THEY promise to deliver (nonstandard).
The choir is performing tonight, and IT promises to deliver (standard).
The choir are having a heated argument, and I’m not sure IT wants to perform (nonstandard).
The choir are having a heated argument, and I’m not sure THEY want to perform (standard).
What is more, eschew using the collective nouns “personnel” and “staff” to refer to just one individual, as in:
I am a staff (nonstandard).
I am a member of staff (standard).
She is a medical personnel (nonstandard).
She is a medical professional (standard).
Last but not least, readers should avoid the inappropriate inclination to pluralise a collective noun when the emphasis is on just one group. For example, all eligible voters in Nigeria constitute one group thus:
The Nigerian electorates will cast their ballots in two years’ time (nonstandard).
The Nigerian electorate will cast their ballots in two years’ time (standard).
Similarly, we have:
The Chelsea faithfuls are ecstatic after the team’s Champions League triumph (nonstandard).
The Chelsea faithful (one group) are ecstatic after the team’s Champions League triumph (standard).
This piece has demystified the dynamics of collective nouns for English users. I do hope you apply the knowledge in your daily interaction.
(c) 2023 Ganiu Bamgbose writes from the Department of English, Lagos State University.