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Collective Nouns: Tips and Tricks for Busy Students
The English language has names for groupings of specific nouns, or collective nouns. Collective nouns are useful. They are also sometimes unintentionally insulting, complimentary, or funny.
For example, consider the following collective nouns:
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 with 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 given our tendency to associate owls with wisdom and intelligence. It would be easy to imagine them meeting as a council to oversee the humans. The crows and ravens, however, will definitely see it as favoritism.
Those responsible for the origination of 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 awaits 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 and Australian English in regard to this particular grammatical feature.
So what is a collective noun? And what are the rules for collective nouns? Those are good questions, 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 citation 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, this guide will help clarify the rules for collective nouns once and for all. Our citation guides and paper 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. This applies whether these are collective nouns singular or plural, which will be seen later in the guide. 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
Types of collective nouns with examples of a collection of individuals:
- jury of peers
- company of actors
- congregation of worshippers
- doctrine of doctors
- superfluity of nuns
- worship of writers
Types of collective nouns with examples of a collection of animals:
- army of frogs
- smack of jellyfish
- streak of tigers
- pride of lions
- clutch of chicks
- colony of bats
- bloat of hippopotamuses
Types of collective nouns with examples of a collection of places, both near and far:
- belt of asteroids
- galaxy of stars
- chain of islands
- suite of rooms
- union of states
Types of collective nouns with examples of a collection of tangible things, also known as concrete nouns:
- armada of ships
- quiver of arrows
- wad of bills
- deck of cards
- fusillade of bullets
- thicket of trees
Types of collective nouns with examples of a collection of ideas or intangible things, also known as abstract nouns:
- 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.
- A family is heading toward the restaurant
- The class is misbehaving at the pep rally.
Herd, family, and class refer to a single group taken as a whole in these examples.
Plural collective nouns refer to more than one collective group:
- Two herds from a neighboring farm are joining the fray.
- Several families are meeting up at the barbecue.
- Two thousand classes are graduating in 2020.
Herds, families, and classes are the plural forms of herd, family, and class and take the plural verb are to refer to more than one herd, family, or class.
As mentioned above, there are instances where the status of collective nouns, singular or plural, changes 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 both 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 skunk-hood, as readers on either side of the debate will be distracted by it, leading to a focus on intent as opposed to meaning. Your meaning would then be lost to the reader, defeating the purpose of all your hard language work.
When writing in MLA format, the context of the sentence and the intention of the writer determine the status of collective nouns, singular or plural. If there are collective nouns singular or plural, they determine the subject-verb agreement. As a result, the choice of collective nouns, singular or plural, also changes the singular or plural verb form used. Look at this example:
- The data is sound.
In the example above, the writer is referring to the singular collective noun data as a whole, so the singular verb, is, is used.
- The data have been collected.
Here, the writer is referring to individual pieces of data and so the plural form is used along with the plural collective noun data. In fact, in the second sentence, a native English speaker may even distinguish between the singular form and the plural form by stating:
- The pieces of data have been collected.
Since the word pieces is pluralized, it makes it clear that the verb must agree in use and be plural as well. Hence, the verb have is used in the example above. Follow the rules for collective nouns by paying attention to the context and remembering subject-verb agreement.
Explore other examples of collective nouns singular and plural below. Once again, note that these examples of collective nouns singular and plural change with the collector of the noun, typically the first word in the sequence. All collective nouns, singular or plural, have a collector of nouns.
Examples of Collective Nouns Singular and Plural with people:
|a band of musicians||bands of musicians|
|a choir of singers||choirs of singers|
|an assembly of members||assemblies of members|
Examples of Collective Nouns Singular and Plural with animals:
|a dule of doves||dules of doves|
|a cluster of cats||clusters of cats|
|a pride of lions||prides of lions|
Examples of Collective Nouns Singular and Plural with objects:
|a fleet of ships||fleets of ships|
|a bunch of flowers||bunches of flowers|
|a pack of cards||packs of cards|
Note in all these examples of collective nouns singular and plural, the collector of something or someone changes from singular to plural. This changes the verb form used.
Learn the Rules for Collective Nouns
Rule is, perhaps, too rigid a word. British, Australian, 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 singular or plural form 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. Remember that proper nouns are brand names or common nouns given status via title or naming.Proper collective nouns tend to be singular collective nouns by default. Here are a few examples:
- Microsoft is releasing an update on Friday.
- Congress is in session again this week.
- Nike is running an ad during the Super Bowl
- North Gwinnett High School has its final exams this week.
- Delta County has a population of over 1 million.
- Lexus has new buying guidelines.
Of course, some proper collective nouns that do not involve brands can violate these rules. Names are usually the proper collective nouns that can be singular collective nouns or plural collective nouns depending on the context.
- A group of Laurens joins the volleyball team today.
- A team of Johnsons decides to start a soccer match.
- Teams of Richardsons play against each other at their family reunion.
Note that in the first example, a group of Laurens means one group comprising several individuals, each named Lauren, so it is a singular proper collective noun. The second example is one team of individuals, each with the last name Johnson, which is also a singular proper collective noun. Both of these examples are examples of singular collective nouns. However, in the last example, there are teams of Richardsons, meaning several teams of people with the last name Richardson. This is an example of a plural proper collective noun. Remember, when answering, “Are collective nouns singular or plural?” pay attention to the noun that is doing the collecting, typically the first word of a collective noun.
When referring to the individuals who comprise the whole, use the plural verb form:
- 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 collective noun has a name that is clearly plural, such as a team name, use the plural verb form:
- The New York Giants are playing on Sunday.
- The Chicago Cubs are in town for three more days.
- The Falcons have not won a game in several weeks.
- The Seattle Seahawks are going to the SuperBowl!
Proper collective noun team names that appear singular still use the plural verb form:
- The Miami Heat are undefeated.
- The Utah Jazz are redesigning their uniforms.
- The Boston Red Sox are playing at Fenway Park this weekend.
- The Trenton Thunder are going against the Erie SeaWolves.
The presence of “the” usually (but not always) indicates that you should use a plural verb with what are seen as plural collective nouns, while “a” or “an” typically signal that a singular verb is necessary with what is seen as a singular collective noun. An example in the “not always” category is The New York City Ballet, which you would treat as part of the group of singular collective nouns.
A prepositional phrase after the collective noun doesn’t change the collective nouns singular or plural status in the subject. Which is correct? Are collective noun’s plural or singular in the following sentences?
- 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, a herd. In order to change this collective noun from singular to plural, you would have to change the subject itself and place a prepositional phrase before the collective noun. Here are plural types of collective nouns with examples:
- Several cows in a herd are stampeding through a field.
- Three people in an assembly are disagreeing with the decision.
- Two girls in our family are twins.
In these examples, the preposition in denotes that the preceding subjects are a part of the collective noun. More importantly, the nouns preceding the collective noun are plural, and so the verb is also used in its plural form. These are the group of collective nouns : cows, people, and girls. All three are a part of the subject and also a part of their collective nouns, herd, assembly, and family. But due to subject-verb agreement, the first noun in the subject determines the singular or plural form of the verb. If you pluralize the word herd in our first example, what would happen? Which of the following examples of collective nouns, singular or plural, would be used with which verb form?
- Herds of cows are stampeding through the streets.
- Herds of cows is stampeding through the streets.
Here, an example of one of the singular collective nouns, herd, is pluralized to become herds, an example of plural collective nouns. And, as mentioned before, subject-verb agreement applies to the first noun we see in the subject. In these sentences, the subject is herds, which is an example of a plural collective noun; so, you have to use the plural form of the verb, are, to match. Is would be incorrect since it is the singular form of the verb, and we need a plural form of the verb to go with the plural collective nouns in both of our examples. The first example is the correct one.
Collective Nouns and Abstract Nouns
Identifying what is a collective noun can also require ruling out what isn’t. Plurals sometimes masquerade as collective nouns. People, for example, is the plural of a person. To refer to people collectively, you would say a group of people. People alone is simply the plural form of a person. You can also speak more specifically, if necessary, about groups of individuals with specific roles. A group of jurors, for example, is called a damning of jurors, which is an example singular collective nouns.
Judges, on the other hand, are a sentence of judges, another example of singular collective nouns. These are examples of collective nouns that use singular forms with prepositional phrases. Based on the rules for collective nouns, they are collective nouns even without the objects of their prepositional phrases: jurors and judges, respectively. To pluralize them, you would simply pluralize the collector (i.e., damnings of jurors and sentences of judges are plural collective nouns). Alone, however, jurors and judges are just plural terms of traditional nouns. The term group is utilized to create collective nouns.in these instances. However, the combination of collective nouns and abstract nouns is limited nowadays. Here are the few examples still in usage of collective nouns and abstract nouns:
- A pack of lies
- A mess of emotions
- A bundle of feelings
Note that these collective nouns and abstract nouns are used more in writing than in conversation. And technically, you could take any collective noun and creatively combine it with any abstract noun given the proper context. After all, that is how language evolves!
Oddly enough, within this century, usage guides and dictionaries have stated that collective nouns and abstract nouns cannot overlap. So, phrases such as wealth of knowledge and tissue of lies would seem to persist as pure acts of linguistic defiance. Tissue of lies, admittedly, hasn’t held up as well as the rest. Consider these strange encounters between collective nouns and abstract nouns as another fun fact for trivia night.
Now, when asked, “What is a collective noun?,” you’ll have an understanding of the rules for collective nouns along with examples of collective nouns singular or plural; different types of collective nouns with examples, like collective nouns of animals or people; and even be able to share what is a collective noun for strange combinations, like a herd of harlots or a mute of hounds. And better still, you’ll know that whether or not are collective nouns singular or plural, making it herds of harlots and mutes of hounds, to go from singular collective nouns to plural collective nouns.
Published March 4, 2019. Updated June 17, 2020.
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