Collective Nouns: Tips and Tricks for Busy Students
Deep in the depths of the English language are subtle insults. For example, consider the following collective nouns used to identify groups of birds:
A group of crows is collectively known as a murder of crows. Crows live in family structures similar to humans and hold funerals for their dead. They bring gifts to humans who are kind to them and carry grudges against humans who are cruel. We should not be insulting crows like this.
Ravens have it even worse. A group of ravens is called an unkindness or conspiracy of ravens. Ravens are among the smartest animals in the world, and they empathize and console one another. They can also mimic humans, other animals, and even car engines, and they live up to 45 years. That's a long time to be taunted by an angry raven calling your name in the middle of the night. We should not be insulting ravens like this.
A group of owls is known as a parliament; this seems fitting, but the crows and ravens might see it as favoritism.
Those responsible for these terms may have approached the task with resentment against birds or something that looks like it.
While laypeople aren’t necessarily wrong when referring to all birds, regardless of species, with the collective noun flock, another challenge waits in the wings when writing about them: are collective nouns singular or plural?
Matching the number and tense of a verb to a collective noun requires answering a series of questions that determine whether the sentence refers to the collective or the individuals within it, and speakers of American English have rules that differ from those for speakers of British English.
So what is a collective noun? That’s a good question, but answers aren’t always easy to come by. The sixth edition of the APA stylebook, for example, has eliminated this section and shifted it to their supplemental materials. Citation Machine Plus can help with references for APA Format and more styles.
If you’re currently navigating this collective conundrum, keep reading for definitions, tips, and tricks that can help, whether you’re writing about a murder of crows, a bevy of beauties, or a galaxy of stars. Our citation guides and grammar checker are always available, as well, to help you get it right.
What is a Collective Noun?
A collective noun names a collection taken as a whole. Some are used commonly today, while others are so specific that they are rarely seen or heard in modern usage. Click here to learn more.
Types of Collective Nouns with Examples
Collective nouns can refer to a collection of people:
- jury of peers
- company of actors
- congregation of worshippers
- doctrine of doctors
- superfluity of nuns
- worship of writers
A collection of animals (also called terms of venery):
- army of frogs
- smack of jellyfish
- streak of tigers
- pride of lions
- clutch of chicks
- colony of bats
- bloat of hippopotamuses
A collection of places:
- belt of asteroids
- galaxy of stars
- chain of islands
- suite of rooms
- union of states
A collection of tangible things:
- armada of ships
- quiver of arrows
- wad of bills
- deck of cards
- fusillade of bullets
- thicket of trees
A collection of ideas or intangible things:
- battery of tests
- tissue of lies
- wealth of information
Are Collective Nouns Singular or Plural?
Answering "what is a collective noun?" is straightforward; assigning them status as singular or plural is slightly more complicated. Depending on the context, collective terms can be singular or plural.
Singular collective nouns refer to the entire group:
- A herd of cattle is terrorizing the city.
Herd refers to the group of cattle taken as a whole in this example.
Plural collective nouns refer to more than one group:
- Two herds from a neighboring farm are joining the fray.
Herds is the plural of herd, and takes the plural are to refer to more than one herd.
There are, as mentioned, instances where collective nouns may be singular or plural depending on the context.
Data is a borrowed word from Latin and is the plural form of datum. In common, non-scientific usage, however, the definition has been updated, and data can be used to refer to the individual and the collective. (Fun fact for your next trivia night: When misuse of a word leads to the incorrect form’s eventual acceptance, the word is said to be skunked. See also: media, decimate, and hopefully. Linguists consider it unwise to use a word that is at the tipping point of skunkhood, as readers on either side of the debate will be distracted by it.)
When writing in MLA format, the context of the sentence and the intention of the writer determines the verb tense:
- The data is sound.
The writer is referring to the collective data, so the singular verb is used.
- The data have been collected.
Here, the writer is referring to individual pieces of data and treats it as plural.
Explore other examples of collective nouns that can be singular and plural below.
Learn the Rules for Collective Nouns
Rule is, perhaps, too rigid a word. British and American usage varies for collective nouns. In American English, a collective noun almost always takes a singular verb, but there’s more to it than that. The intent of the writer helps to determine the tense of the verb, so being wrong is less common than just sounding wrong.
In American English, the guidelines below will help you sound right:
A proper collective noun is usually singular:
- Microsoft is releasing an update on Friday.
- Congress is in session again this week.
- Nike is running an ad during the Super Bowl.
When referring to the individuals who comprise the whole, use the plural:
- Microsoft engineers have released the update.
- Members of Congress are returning this week.
- Nike employees are featured in the Super Bowl ad.
When a proper name is clearly plural, such as a team name, use the plural tense:
- The New York Giants are playing on Sunday.
- The Chicago Cubs are in town for three more days.
Teams with names that appear singular still use the plural tense:
- The Miami Heat are undefeated.
- The Utah Jazz are redesigning their uniforms.
This presence of "the" usually (but not always) indicates that you should use a singular verb, while "a" or "an" typically signals that a plural is necessary. An example of the not always category is The New York City Ballet, which you treat as singular.
A prepositional phrase doesn’t change the number of the collective noun in the subject: Which is correct?
- A herd of cows are stampeding through the streets.
- A herd of cows is stampeding through the streets.
In this example, the second option is correct. The plural cows in the prepositional phrase of cows does not change the number of the subject, herd.
What Is(n’t) a Collective Noun?
Identifying what is a collective noun can also require ruling out what isn’t. Plurals sometimes masquerade as collective. People, for example, is the plural of person. To refer to people collectively, you would say group of people. You can also speak more specifically, if necessary. A group of jurors, for example, is called a damning of jurors. Judges, on the other hand, are a sentence of judges.
Within this century, usage guides and dictionaries have stated that collective nouns and abstract nouns cannot overlap. The phrases wealth of knowledge, battery of tests, and tissue of lies would seem to persist, then, as acts of linguistic defiance.
Tissue of lies, admittedly, hasn’t held up as well as the rest. Consider that one another fun fact for trivia night.