What Are Collective Nouns And How Do You Use Them?

Often, we find ourselves as members of groups. We might be a member of a family, a team, a society, or a club. Not only do all of these things prevent us from being lonely, but the words used to refer to them are all nouns.

We use nouns to refer to friendly people, interesting places, and amazing things, and we use many different types of nouns in our writing in speech. Right now, we’re going to gather everybody together and explore a type of noun that we use to refer to groups, gaggles, and gangs: the collective noun.

What is a collective noun?

The word collective means “of or characteristic of a group of individuals taken together.” A collective noun is a noun that appears singular in formal shape but denotes a group of persons or objects. The words army, flock, and bunch are all examples of collective nouns. These nouns are all singular nouns but they refer to a group of people or things. In most cases, collective nouns use singular verbs. That’s because collective nouns refer to a group of multiple people or things as a single unit or entity.

Collective nouns vs. uncountable (mass) nouns

Although collective nouns are very similar to uncountable nouns, there are important differences between the two types of nouns. Unlike uncountable nouns, collective nouns can follow an indefinite article or a number: you can buy a deck of cards but you can’t buy “a furniture.” Another major difference is that collective nouns typically have plural forms while uncountable nouns rarely do. For example, a baseball game can be between two teams but you don’t put “three milks” in your coffee.

Are collective nouns singular or plural?

In most cases, collective nouns use singular verbs as in My family is weird. If the collective noun is made plural, it uses a plural verb as in The two families hate each other. So far so good. However, if the members of the group are not acting in unison, it sounds better to use a plural verb.

Take a look at these two sentences, and you can see when we would want to use a plural verb:

 

  • The flock is grazing quietly in the meadow.
  • Whenever the wolves appear, the flock run in every direction.

If you don’t understand the difference, try reading the sentences again and analyze the context of what each sentence is trying to say. In the first sentence, every sheep in the flock is doing the same thing: they are all acting as a harmonious unit as they eat grass. In the second sentence, the sheep are panicking, and it is every sheep for themself as they run away. If the second sentence instead used a singular noun, the sentence would mean that the sheep all collectively ran in the same direction.

Although it makes sense to use a plural verb in this case, it still sounds awkward to most people. For this reason, writers will often write a sentence in such a way that they avoid using a plural verb with a collective noun. For example, it may feel better to say The members of the jury argue with one another rather than The jury argue with one another.

Three types of collective nouns and examples

We use collective nouns to refer to a wide variety of stuff.

People

We often use collective nouns to refer to groups of people.

 

  • Examples: team, gang, squad, army, jury, clergy, cult, crew

Animals

There are a lot of different collective nouns that refer to groups of animals. Many of these collective nouns are memorable because of how silly or strange they sound.

 

  • Examples: a herd of cows, a litter of kittens, a pride of lions, a school of fish, a murder of crows, a clowder of cats, a clan of hyenas, a flamboyance (yes, really!) of flamingos

Things

We also use collective nouns to refer to groups of things. Depending on the word, a collective noun can refer to a group of physical objects and/or abstract ideas.

 

  • Examples: bunch, stack, pile, supply, set, pack, collection, trove, horde

List of collective nouns

We use many collective nouns in everyday speech. Take a look at this list of collective nouns and see if you can think of things you could use these words to refer to.

 

  • heap, bushel, sheaf, quiver, bundle, choir, troupe, posse, mob, class, herd, swarm, staff, battalion, band, colony, pair, packet, wad, fleet, committee, congregation, ensemble, tribe, troop

The difference between collective & compound nouns

So far, we have focused only on collective nouns. There is another type of noun that likes to bring things together. A compound noun is a noun that is formed from two or more words.

Compound nouns are more versatile than collective nouns and can refer to a single person or a single object. By contrast, collective nouns must refer to more than one person or thing even when used as a singular noun.

Looking for more? Add on to your knowledge about compound nouns with our article on them!

Besides this difference, both collective nouns and compound nouns follow the same rules that govern all other nouns. Both can be singular nouns or plural nouns. Both can be concrete nouns or abstract nouns. Both can be possessive nouns: for example, you can visit your sister-in-law’s house or hear the jury’s decision. Possessive collective nouns can be tricky because they imply that the entire group owns or contributes to something. If this isn’t true, you may need to rethink your sentence and replace the collective noun with a more accurate word.

Although rare, it is possible for a noun to be both a collective noun and a compound noun. For example, the word homeroom is a compound noun formed from the words home and room. At the same time, homeroom can be used as a collective noun to refer to a group of students.

Let’s finish with a review of everything you have learned. Look at each of the following sentences and see if you can understand why the given noun is a collective noun, a compound noun, or both.

 

  • She was carrying a stack of books.
  • I really don’t think he is a people person. 
  • We saw a flash mob by city hall.
  • My brother is allergic to seafood.
  • The firefighters saved the burning building.

Write without errors

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Answers: 1. Collective 2. Compound 3. Both (Flash mob is a collective noun because it is a singular noun that refers to a group of people.) 4. Compound (Seafood is an uncountable noun and not a collective noun.) 5. Compound (Firefighters is a plural noun based on the noun firefighter, which is not a collective noun.)

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We've collected 10 types of nouns used in English. Can you name them all?