What Is a Collective Noun? Definition and Examples

A closeup image of an army of ants.

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A collective noun is a noun—such as team, committee, jury, squad, orchestra, crowd, audience, and family—that refers to a group of individuals. It is also known as a group noun. In American English, collective nouns usually take singular verb forms. Collective nouns can be replaced by both singular and plural pronouns, depending on their meaning.

Examples and Observations

In the following examples, the collective noun or nouns are listed in italics.

  • "The family is one of nature's masterpieces."
"Nouns such as committee, family, government, jury, and squad take a singular verb or pronoun when thought of as a single unit, but a plural verb or pronoun when thought of as a collection of individuals:
  • The committee gave its unanimous approval to the plans.
  • The committee enjoyed biscuits with their tea.
"It is possible for singular collective nouns to be followed either by a singular or a plural verb form (see number):
  • The audience was delighted with the performance.
  • The audience were delighted with the performance.

Colorful Collective Nouns

"Many noncount nouns have an equivalent countable expression using such words as piece or bit (partitive or collective nouns) followed by of:

  • Luck: a piece of luck
  • Grass: a blade of grass
  • Bread: a loaf of bread

Venereal Nouns

"Venereal noun: A noun denoting a collection of persons or things regarded as a unit, defining them through word play..."

Nouns of "Multitude"

The notion of collective nouns dates back centuries. Willam Cobbet noted in 1818:

"Nouns of number, or multitudes, such as Mob, Parliament, Rabble, House of Commons, Regiment, Court of King's Bench, Den of Thieves, and the like, may have Pronouns agreeing with them either in the singular or in the plural number; for we may, for instance, say of the House of Commons, 'They refused to hear evidence against Castlereagh when Mr. Maddox accused him of having sold a seat'; or, 'It refused to hear evidence.' But, we must be uniform in our use of the Pronoun in this respect. We must not, in the same sentence, and applicable to the same noun, use the singular in one part of the sentence and the plural in another part....There are persons who pretend to make very nice distinctions as to the cases when these nouns of multitude ought to take the singular, and when they ought to take the plural, Pronoun; but these distinctions are too nice to be of any real use. The rule is this; that nouns of multitude may take either the singular or the plural, Pronoun; but not both in the same sentence."

The Lighter Side of Collective Nouns

Collective nouns can also add humor to any written piece.

"[C]ollective-noun inventing is a game that continues today. The aim is to find a word which puns on the meaning of the plural entity. Here are 21 of the best from my own collection:
  • An absence of waiters
  • A rash of dermatologists
  • A shoulder of agony aunts
  • A crop of barbers
  • A clutch of car mechanics
  • A vat of chancellors
  • A bout of estimates
  • An annoyance of mobile phones
  • A lot of auctioneers
  • A bumble of beekeepers
  • A flutter of gamblers
  • A complex of psychiatrists
  • A fidget of choirboys
  • A mass of priests
  • A sulk of teenagers
  • A whored of prostitutes
  • A crash of software
  • A depression of weather forecasters
  • A mucking fuddle of spoonerisms
"Everyone loves to play with language. The ways of doing so have no order and no end."

(David Crystal, "By Hook or by Crook: A Journey in Search of English." Overlook Press, 2008)

Sources

  • Cobbet, William A. Grammar of the English Language in a Series of Letters: Intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in General, but More Especially for the Use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-Boys. 1818.
  • Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003
  • Marsh, David, Guardian Style. Guardian Books, 2007.