Monday, September 24, 2007

Collective Nouns — What Are They?

Family on tour: South Bank, London, May 2007

A collective noun is one that refers to a group of people or things — such as family.

Collective nouns may be used with singular or plural verbs, depending on whether you’re thinking of the group as a single unit (+ singular verb) or as a number of individuals (+ plural verb). To illustrate:

(i) The family is on tour. (singular: touring as a single unit)
(ii) The family are having a good time. (plural: they are all having fun)

Similarly, (iii) below emphasizes that the committee is making the decision as one, whereas in (iv) the emphasis is on members as individuals:

(iii) The committee has finally reached a decision. (singular)
(iv) The committee are always squabbling. (plural)

The names of organizations and sports teams are often collective nouns, especially in British English. Hence:

(v) Scottish Water are based in Edinburgh. (plural)
(vi) Chelsea are fast losing their competitive edge. (plural)

Here is a list of common collective nouns:

aristocracy, army, audience, cast, choir, committee, community, company, council, couple, crew, enemy, family, flock, gang, government, group, herd, jury, management, media, ministry, navy, opposition, orchestra, police, press, public, school, staff, team, youth

Note that police never takes a plural –s ending but is always followed by a plural verb (e.g. The police are investigating the incident). Other collective nouns like staff, crew and public rarely take the plural –s; but this is possible when referring to two separate sets (e.g. There is some friction between the staffs of the White House and Number 10; The book was a hit among the Singaporean and Malaysian publics.) Yet others are used as partitives; e.g. a flock of birds, a gang of thugs.

Bear in mind that some collective nouns have countable counterparts with different meanings. Consider:

(vii) The youth of Singapore are our future. (collective noun)
(viii) A youth is/Some youths are loitering outside the cinema. (countable noun)

In the collective sense illustrated in (vii), youth never takes an –s ending but takes a plural verb: it means ‘young people’ considered as a group, and refers to both females and males. In (viii), however, countable youth(s) is either singular or plural, and is a disapproving term referring only to males — the closest equivalents in Singlish are probably samseng and pai kia (‘hooligans, deliquents, gangsters’). Hence, if you find yourself referring to a young person or young people as (a) youth/youths but don’t mean to call him/her/them samseng or pai kia, then the term you probably need is either the youth or simply that: (a) young person/people.

For more information on collective nouns, read either of these excellent books: Collins Cobuild English Grammar or Practical English Usage (by Michael Swan).

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