Collective nouns: Seven points of usage

Collective nouns seven points of usage

  1. What are collective nouns?

Collective nouns are nouns that look singular but that represent a group of individuals or objects. Common examples include:

Audience, class, committee, company, contents, couple, faculty, family, flock, group, jury, majority, minority, number, organization, pair, people, press, public, range, series, society, staff, team, variety.

  1. Are collective nouns singular or plural?

A collective noun can refer to the group as a unit (acting in unison) or to its individual parts (acting separately). Use singular verbs and pronouns when referring to the unit, and use plural verbs and pronouns when referring to the individual parts. Here are some examples (collective nouns are underlined; verbs and pronouns are in bold):

Plural Verb Singular Verb
A number of new genes were sequenced. (Number refers to multiple individual genes.) The number of new genes that was sequenced was astounding. (Number refers to the group of genes as a single entity.)
Some of the class were celebrating because the professor offered a make-up exam. (Here, the emphasis is on distinct class members.) The class was celebrating because the professor offered a make-up exam. (Class refers to the group as a single unit.)
Some of the audience were agitated by the length of the lecture. The audience was unanimous in its approval.
The team were in disagreement about how to interpret their results. (Team refers to the individuals, who disagree.) That team was awarded the grant. (Team refers to the group as a unit.)

 

  1. Tip for avoiding awkward writing

Collective nouns used in the plural can create awkward-sounding sentences. Improve these sentences by adding a word or phrase like members or the members of that clearly defines the collective noun:

Some of the class members were relieved that the professor offered a make-up exam.
Some members of the audience were agitated by the length of the lecture.
The team members were in disagreement about how to interpret their results.

  1. Use tenses consistently

Whether a collective noun is treated as singular or plural, use the verb form and pronouns consistently when referring to that noun. For example, the following sentence uses verbs and pronouns inconsistently:

That team has won many awards, but they did not receive the NSF grant. (Has is singular, but they is plural.)

Here is the corrected sentence:

That team has won many awards, but it did not receive the NSF grant.

  1. Tip for the noun number:

When number is preceded by a, it is treated as plural:

A number of explanations were proposed.

When number is preceded by the, it is treated as singular:

The number of proposed explanations was overwhelming.

  1. Units of measure: singular or plural?

Plural units (e.g., 100 mL, 1.5 kg, 2 L, 35 μg) are treated as collective nouns used with a singular verb:

After stirring, 5 μL of phosphate buffered saline was added.
The mixture was weighed, and 100 g was removed for analysis.
Ten milliliters of solution was centrifuged.

  1. UK/US English differences.

British English tends to use the plural verb form for collective nouns, and American English generally uses the singular. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that collective nouns including public, government, and committee are commonly used with plural verbs in British English but with singular verbs in American English:

British English American English
The public are going to be up in arms about the new policy. The public is going to be up in arms about the new policy.
The government are currently in recess. The government is currently in recess.
The committee have decided against recommending tenure. The committee has decided against recommending tenure.
Anne Altor PhD, PWS

Anne Altor

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Anne AltorCollective nouns: Seven points of usage

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