Collective Nouns

A look at some examples of collective nouns is our first step to understanding what they are.

  • a crowd
  • a range of mountains
  • a deck of cards
  • a pile of books
  • an anthology of poems
  • a bunch of grapes
  • a pack of wolves
  • a swarm of bees
  • a network of computers
  • "a host of golden daffodils" (as in Wordsworth's poem)

The words in italics in the above phrases are collective nouns. Why do we call them so? What is special about them? How can we recognize them?

What Are Collective Nouns?

It is important to remember what they are as well as what they are not. In this way, you can avoid lots of confusion.

  • Collective nouns are names of collections.

  • They are not the names of the individuals in a collection.

The collections may be of people, places, or things.

See these examples:

  • crowd, orchestra — are names given to collections of people;
  • herd, swarm — are labels for collections of animals or other living things;
  • union, federation — may be understood as collections of places; and
  • bunch, pile — are words we use for collections of things.

Three Places Where Confusion is Possible

  1. Mistaking the Whole Phrase to be the Collective Noun

    Examples for collective nouns are usually taught in phrase form:

    • a bunch of grapes,
    • a swarm of bees, etc.

    Those learning English may tend to think of the whole phrase as a collective noun. Please know that only the words bunch and swarm are the collective nouns in the two phrases, not the whole phrases. The words "of grapes" and "of bees" are only specifications of bunch and swarm respectively.

  2. Confusing the Collection with the Plural of the Elements in it

    The plural of a grape is grapes. The word grape is the name of an individual in the collection; and the word grapes is its plural. The plural refers to many separate individuals. I could count and give ten separate grapes to a child without giving her a bunch.

    What we call a bunch is a complete entity in itself, though composed of many individual items. The name bunch does not belong to any of the individuals.

    Therefore, bunch is a collective noun, but grapes is not.

  3. Confusing Mass Nouns with Collective Nouns

    A mass noun (i.e. an uncountable noun) is something we think of as complete and does not have a plural (e.g. air, glass). When people do use what looks like the plurals (airs, glasses), then they don't mean the same thing as the mass noun we are talking about. {Some nouns may be both countable and uncountable, but under different meanings.)

    A collective noun, on the other hand, does have a plural - crowds, ranges, decks, bunches. You could, for instance, have one bunch (of grapes) in your right hand and another in your left.

    That brings us to another question...

Are Collective Nouns Singular or Plural?

Observe these two sentences:

  1. The staff works for four hours on Saturdays.

  2. The staff are unhappy with the decision to make them work on Saturdays.

You will notice...

  • that the word staff in sentence 1 is singular. We know this from the verb which matches it (works is singular).

  • The word staff in sentence 2 is plural. The verb are shows us this.

How can the same word be singular at one time and plural some other time?

Why is the word staff used like this?

The British System

In sentence 1 above, the staff is thought of as one collection. In sentence 2, we are thinking of the staff as a number of human beings who are unhappy. This is very true to human ways of thinking, even though it does not seem logical. (But human life has its own deeper logic which we cannot always hold within the rules of the science of logic.)

This is the British English tradition which we in India have been following and which is dear to me since I learnt it as a child. You may need to sense what is being emphasized in a particular context whether the particular collective noun is looked upon as a whole or as parts put together.

The American System

But here is a no-complication system. This is obviously logical (i.e. according to rules of logic). In this system, the above sentences are rewritten as follows:

  1. The staff works for four hours on Saturdays. (no change)
  2. The members of the staff are unhappy with the decision to make them work on Saturdays.

When you write the sentences in this way, the collective noun staff is singular since it is a single collection of people. In sentence 2, members is a plural word for the number of individuals within the collection. This is the preference of American English. I prefer this second approach for teaching my students about collective nouns.

For Further Reading and Study...