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Collective Nouns

Are they singular or plural?

By
Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
September 2, 2008
Episode #131

Page 2 of 2

A Couple of Rules: Institutions and Animate vs. Inanimate Nouns

Although no rule states you must use a singular verb or a plural verb after a collective noun, style guides do offer two guidelines.

First, institution names, such as the United States, the House of Lords, and Congress, tend to use singular verbs (1). This is probably because we see these institutions as units; we don’t think of the members as individuals. So you would most likely say, “Congress is meeting today.” If you wanted to emphasize the individuals in Congress, on the other hand, you could say, “The members of Congress are meeting today.”

The second guideline involves nouns that are animate (alive) versus inanimate (not alive). Collective nouns are always animate (4), and they can use a plural or a singular verb, as we’ve seen. Inanimate objects, such as “sugar” or “furniture,” are called mass nouns or uncountable nouns, and are always singular. So you would say, “This sugar is very sweet” or “My furniture is too old.” You can’t say, “This sugar are” or “My furniture are.” If you want to talk about individual grains of sugar or individual pieces of furniture, then you have to say something like “Eight grains of sugar were found” or “These pieces of furniture are new.”

Prepositional Phrases

Some people get tripped up when a prepositional phrase comes after a collective noun that is the subject of a sentence. For example, if you're talking about “a large group of students,” “group” is the collective noun and the subject of the sentence; however, it's easy to get distracted by the prepositional phrase “of students” because it sounds plural. The thing to remember is that the verb takes its cue from the subject of the sentence--“a large group”--and not from the prepositional phrase that modifies the subject. In cases like this, just ignore the prepositional phrase “of students” and take your cue from the real subject: “a large group.”

So take your cues from the suggestions I talked about a minute ago. If you're in the United States and you're thinking of the group as a single unit, you'd generally use a singular verb: “A large group of students is arriving at noon.” If you're in Britain or are thinking of the students as individuals, you'd generally use a plural verb: “A large group of students were listening.”

Consistency

The last thing to consider with collective nouns is to make sure you’re being consistent. If you’re talking about the faculty and you choose to use a plural verb, then you need to be consistent. It would not be good to say, “The faculty is meeting today, but they are not happy to be meeting at 5am.” Here you’ve mixed a singular verb (“is”) with a plural pronoun (“they”) and a plural verb (“are”). It would be better to stick with all singular or all plural.

Administrative

This show was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at http://sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.

References

1. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 157-8.

2. Fogarty, Mignon. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. New York: Henry Holt, 2008, pp. 70-1.

3. Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, pp. 159-60.

4. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, p. 94.

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