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What Is a Collective Noun?

What is a collective noun? A collective noun is a single word that encompasses more than one single item. For instance, if you mention a flock of birds, you are using the singular noun “flock” to represent multiple birds.

So a collective noun is a noun that represents multiple other nouns! You could say:

The flock of birds took off suddenly.

Or 10,000 birds took off suddenly.

Or even The flock took off suddenly.

What Is a Collective Noun? A Few Examples

What is a collective noun I can use for people?

A band of musicians
A gang of thieves
An army of soldiers
A crowd of people
A panel of judges
A troupe of actors
A team of players
A class of students
A group of girls
A family
A mob of people
A choir of singers
The staff of people

What is a collective noun I can use for animals?

A herd of cattle
An army of ants
A horde of rhinos
A school of fish
A pack of wolves
A swarm of locusts
A litter of kittens
A hive of bees
A flock of geese

What is a collective noun I can use for things?

A fleet of ships
A bunch of broccoli
A bouquet of flowers
A pair of earrings
A galaxy of stars
A stack of pancakes
A basket of fruit
A library of books
A pack of cards
A series of books

Singular vs. Plural Collective Nouns

The interesting thing about collective nouns is that even though you are using a singular word to describe a group of items – be they persons, places, or things – the collective noun itself can be singular or plural! And when it is singular, it is treated as such. That means that all the verbs, nouns, and pronouns must be in agreement as singular verbs, nouns, and pronouns.

Likewise, if the collective verb is plural, it must be in agreement with all the verbs, nouns, and pronouns surrounding it. They should all be plural.

Here’s the rub. It can be difficult to tell if a collective noun is singular or plural. In fact, it can be a bit maddening. To me personally, they always sound singular! Luckily – a large majority of the time – they are singular and used in the singular form.

Lucky for me, huh? And probably lucky for you too, because I’m betting that the singular is typically what you default to if you think about it. However, because collective nouns are actually talking about more than one person, place, or thing, they can trip people up and trick them into thinking they must be plural.

It helps if you think about collective nouns as being singular – but with exceptions. Here are some examples of regular, singular usage. Since the following collective nouns are all singular, so are the surrounding verbs, nouns, and pronouns.

Examples of Singular Collective Nouns

The mob outside the courthouse was angry, and it showed its frustration by throwing anything it could find at the courthouse walls.

Everything is singular: noun mob; pronouns it and its

The herd of buffalo stampeded towards the wall with all its might.

Everything is singular: collective noun herd; pronoun its

The swarm scares me to death! It is coming at me very quickly.

Everything is singular: collective noun swarm; verbs scares and is; pronoun It

The pack of wolves licks its chops as it surrounds the carcass lying on the ground.

This one is trickier! Because we used the entire phrase pack of wolves, and wolves is plural, you could mess up on this one. However, the collective noun pack is singular. The of wolves part is just a prepositional phrase that describes the pack.

Examples of Plural Collective Nouns

So now that we’ve really worked over the singular version of the collective noun, let’s talk about the instances where you need to go plural.

Example #1

The crowd is very happy to see its candidate in person. It claps loudly as she climbs the stairs to the stage.

Let’s break this down. In this first sentence, crowd is used in the singular form. Therefore, is is the singular verb that is used in the first sentence. The first sentence also uses the singular pronoun it, and the singular verb claps. Thereby, all forms of pronouns and verbs match the singular form of crowd that we used.

Great. Now onto the second sentence.

The crowds in three cities are very happy to see their candidate in person. Whenever she is in town, they clap loudly to show their support.

In this sentence, you can see that we are clearly using the plural of crowd – which is crowds. This plural form is easy to spot as it uses the addition of s. They are not always that easy to spot!

But this is clearly the plural that is being used. We are talking about three different crowds in three different cities. Notice then that we use the plural tense of the verb is (which is were) so that the subject and verb agree. Likewise, in the follow-up sentence, we use the plural pronouns they and their as well as the plural verb clap – so everything is in agreement.

So when do you use the singular and when do you use plural when it’s not so obvious? Here’s the question you want to ask to answer that question:

“Is the group that forms the collective noun all working together in unison?”

Example #2

Which is correct?

The choir is performing Christmas Carols at the Billy Bob’s Center for Performing Arts.

The choir are performing Christmas Carols at the Billy Bob’s Center for Performing Arts.

If you chose the first sentence, you are correct. The choir is performing as a unit. I seriously doubt that they will all be singing different carols at different times – thereby causing a serious mess. They will be singing in unison, and that makes choir singular.

Now, let’s imagine that three of the members of the choir are in a rehearsal room. The three members are all rehearsing for a competition that’s taking place down the hall. However, instead of working together, they are all rehearsing individual pieces to perform at the competition. In this scenario, the sentence would look something like this:

With Billy singing opera, Joey belting out Led Zeppelin, and Mary singing show tunes, the choir are getting their voices ready for the competition.

Aha! Now we’re seeing something different. Because they are not working together, the collective noun choir becomes plural. Therefore, you would use the plural pronouns are and their as well as the plural noun voices so that they are all in agreement.

If the three aficionados were all working together on the same song, we would use singular nouns and pronouns:

Billy, Joey, and Mary decided to perform an opera piece together. The choir is getting its voice ready for the competition.

Notice that we use the singular pronouns is, its, and the noun voice in the sentence above because they are now working together.

Example #3

How about one more?

The class worked on their individual assignments during study hall.

Here, the members of the group are obviously doing different things. Therefore, the collective noun class becomes plural. Because the collective subject is plural, the rest of the nouns and pronouns have to be in agreement and be plural as well. That’s why I’ve used the plural pronoun their and the plural noun assignments as the object of the preposition.

So once again, what if they were all working on the same assignment? Then you would have a sentence like this:

The class worked on its science assignment during study hall.

Now everyone is working in unison and therefore become a singular class. And with that comes the singular pronoun its and the singular noun assignment.

What Is a Collective Noun? Final Thoughts

I hope this blog helps you better answer the question, “What is a collective noun?” The concept is pretty straightforward. However, it does get a little tricky when you are trying to determine if the collective noun should be a singular or plural. But understanding this is important, because it determines how the rest of the pronouns, nouns, and verbs in the sentence behave.

Be sure to check out some of our Professional Writing lessons, as well as our other blogs like the three cases of pronouns and mass nouns. These will really help you to better understand our friend, the collective noun.

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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