Collective Nouns

Are they singular or plural?

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

Today’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.”


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