Collective Nouns in Spanish

No Clear Rules on Using Singular or Plural Verbs

Clouds in Galicia, Spain
Un rebaño de nubes negras pasea por el cielo. (A group of dark clouds marches across the sky.) The photo was taken at Cebrero, Galicia, Spain. Jesus Solana/Creative Commons.

Collective nouns — singular nouns that refer to more than one being or thing — aren't consistently treated as either singular or plural in Spanish.

Grammar Rules for Using Collective Nouns

There is one grammar rule, however, that is clear: When the collective noun is followed immediately by a verb, the noun is treated as singular.

  • La gente cree que las cosas están mal. (People believe things are bad).
  • La muchedumbre fue manipulada. (The crowd was manipulated.)
  • Sobre el papel, el equipo era muy competitivo. (On paper, the team was very competitive.)

However, when there are words that intervene — especially de followed by a plural noun — Spanish speakers are inconsistent in the verbs they use. Authorities also disagree on which choice of verb is proper. Note the following examples, all found through a search of mainstream Spanish-language web pages:

  • Somos un grupo de personas que conforma la lista de correo electrónico. (We are a group of people who belong to an email list.) Somos un grupo de personas que deseamos compartir con ustedes. (We are a group of people who wish to share with you.)
  • Un rebaño de nubes negras pasea por el cielo. (A group of dark clouds marches across the sky.) El rebaño de hembras deben integrarse en el de los machos. (The herd of females ought to blend with one of males.)
  • Cerca de la mitad de las personas en edad de jubilación en el mundo no reciben ningún tipo de pensión. (About half of the world's people of retirement age not receive any kind of pension.) La mitad de las empresas españolas realizará on line el 20 por ciento de sus transacciones. (Half of Spanish businesses will carry out 20 percent of their transactions online.)
  • Una docena de chicos se alimenta en el basural. (A dozen children are feeding themselves in the dump.) Una docena de entidades crean una plataforma para impulsar el laicismo. (A dozen entities are creating a platform to promote expanded use of the laity.)

There are some authorities who indicate that the choice of singular or plural verb depends on whether it refers more to the group or to the individual entities that make up the group. But as you can see from the examples above, in real speech no such distinction is made.

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Erichsen, Gerald. "Collective Nouns in Spanish." ThoughtCo, May. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/collective-nouns-and-verb-agreements-3078146. Erichsen, Gerald. (2017, May 29). Collective Nouns in Spanish. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/collective-nouns-and-verb-agreements-3078146 Erichsen, Gerald. "Collective Nouns in Spanish." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/collective-nouns-and-verb-agreements-3078146 (accessed January 23, 2018).