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Collective Nouns

Are they singular or plural?

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

Collective NounsToday’s topic is collective nouns, nouns that describe a group, such as “family,” “orchestra,” and “board.”

Guest-writer Bonnie Trenga writes,

There are around 200 collective nouns in the English language (1). Sometimes they take a singular verb, but other times they take a plural verb. The most important thing to realize is that there are no hard and fast rules here, only trends. Usually, which verb you use depends on two things: whether you consider the collective noun to be a single unit or to be made up of individuals, and whether you’re American or British.

Singular or Plural Verbs?

Let’s use the collective noun “couple” as an example. When you are thinking of the couple as two separate people doing separate things, you would probably use a plural verb. For example, you would say, "The couple are vacationing separately this year," because they are two different people doing two different things. On the other hand, if you're thinking of the couple as a single unit, you would probably use a singular verb. For example, you would say, "Each couple is going to Bermuda on a different day." You just have to use your best judgment, and even though this seems tricky, the good news is that you can never really get it wrong because 1) there is no real rule, and 2) you can always just assert that you were thinking of the couple as individuals (or a unit) if someone questions your verb choice (2).

Here’s another example. A listener, Jody, asks how to use the word “family.” She wants to know which is correct—“Tim’s family is ranchers” or “Tim’s family are ranchers.” Jody points out that she prefers “are” but that Word’s grammar checker prefers “is.” She wants to know whether having something plural, such as ranchers, after the verb makes a difference. In this case, it doesn’t matter what comes after the verb; it just matters what idea you’re trying to get across. In Jody’s “ranchers” example, I too would prefer “are” because it seems that you’re referring to a bunch of separate individuals. What would happen if we changed “ranchers,” a noun, to “wealthy,” an adjective? Would we prefer “Tim’s family is wealthy” or “Tim’s family are wealthy”? In this case, I would prefer “is” because it seems we’re talking about one family, one unit.

American vs. British Usage

Adding to the complexity of this issue is that Americans and Britons handle it differently.

Americans tend to treat collective nouns as single units, so it’s more common to use the singular verb unless you’re definitely talking about individuals (3). So in America you would be more likely to hear “The faculty is meeting today” than “The faculty are meeting today.”

In British usage, however, it’s the opposite; it’s more common to use the plural verb (4). In fact, some sentences that are perfectly correct in Britain would be considered incorrect in America (3). Take “Cambridge are winning the boat race.” Although I spent my elementary-school years in London, I have been fully Americanized, so this sentence doesn’t sound right to me. As an American, I would say, “Cambridge is winning.”

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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