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Collective nouns: what you need to know

By Jody Bruner

January 29, 2019

Wavelength Updates

Collective nouns: what you need to know - sheep
Collective nouns: what you need to know - wave-lime-green-1260x540-1
Collective nouns: what you need to know - wave-lime-green-1260x540-1

Collective nouns are words that are singular in form but refer to a group of people, things or animals.

For instance, we can refer to one sheep or two sheep, but if we have a lot of sheep we refer to the multitude as a flock of sheep. Flock is a collective noun.

Some common collective nouns we see in business writing are board, companycommittee, class, corporation, council, department, firm, group, majority, minority, organization, staff, and team. Company names are also treated as collective nouns.

Collective nouns get tricky grammatically because although they represent a group of people, animals or things, we treat them as singular grammatically. At least most of the time.

To make things a bit more complicated, American and Canadian grammars treat collective nouns differently from British grammar. Here’s how it works.

The North American Way

  1. If the collectivity is acting as a unit where all the members are doing the same thing, treat the collective noun as singular. This is usually the case. So we say The Board of Directors meets on Friday, or The client service team is attending a conference.
  2. If the members of the group are acting as individuals, treat the collective noun as a plural. The Board of Directors are coming from all over the country to meet in Winnipeg next month or The committee are signing the contract. We’d also say The team are debating among themselves.

The British Way

  1. In British English, it is more common to pair a collective noun with a plural verb.  The team have finished the project. By using the plural verb, the writer stresses the individual members of the team working together to finish the project. Their accomplishment (the project) is collective, and while the emphasis is not on their individual identities, they are at the same time still discrete individuals; the word choice “team have” manages to convey both their collective and discrete identities simultaneously. Pretty subtle, just like that semicolon I just sneaked in.
  2. It’s also common in British English to hear sports broadcasters say things like “Madrid are winning the match.” While in North America, we wouldn’t hear broadcasters say Toronto are taking more shots on net than Chicago.

Practical Advice

If you’re writing to a North American reader use the singular verb. But if you are in doubt or you think the sentence sounds awkward, REWRITE it:

In many cases, it sounds more natural to change the subject to a plural form by adding a word like members:

  • The orchestra members are tuning their instruments.
  • The cast members have been practising their lines.
  • The staff members disagree on the proposal.

Collective Nouns Can be Fun

Here are some wonderful examples of animal collectivities:

  • Congregation of alligators (or magpies)
  • Shrewdness of apes
  • Cloud of bats
  • Dissimulation of birds
  • Glaring of cats
  • Murder of crows
  • Piteousness of doves
  • Waddling of ducks
  • Convocation of eagles
  • Tower of giraffes
  • Kettle of hawks (flying in large numbers)
  • Cackle of hyenas
  • Plague of insects
  • Scold of jays
  • Smack of jellyfish
  • Exaltation of larks
  • Barrel of monkeys (I thought this was a game!!)
  • Parliament of owls
  • Pandemonium of parrots
  • Ostentation of peacocks
  • Murmuration of starlings (fun to say)
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