Understanding Compound And Collective Nouns

Nouns are very common and useful words that we use to refer to all of the people that we meet, places that we go to, and things that we find. We can use nouns to refer to a wide variety of people and things such as a pillow fight, a campground, a colony of ants, or a group of friends. In these four examples, we have used two different common types of nouns known as compound nouns and collective nouns. What is so special about these kinds of nouns and what makes them different from each other? It is time to learn more about these two special kinds of nouns so you can expand your grammar knowledge.


Compound noun vs. collective noun

A compound noun is a noun consisting of two or more parts that are also bases. Putting it another way, a compound noun is formed from two or more individual words. For example, the nouns rainfall (rain + fall), poison ivy (poison + ivy), and court-martial (court + martial) are all compound nouns.

A collective noun is a noun that appears singular in formal shape but denotes a group of persons or objects. For example, the word choir is a singular noun that refers to a group of singers, which means it is a collective noun.

Before we look at the differences between these two types of nouns, let’s explore each in a bit more detail.

Compound nouns

As we said earlier, compound nouns are simply nouns formed from two or more words. Typically, a compound noun has a distinct meaning that is different from the words used to form it. For example, hand is a noun referring to a part of the body and shake is a verb that means to move something back and forth quickly. The noun handshake, a compound noun, refers to an act of two people grasping and moving hands as a form of greeting or farewell.

Compound nouns are common, and we come up with new ones all of the time. Compound nouns are very versatile and all of the other types of nouns can also be compound nouns. This means that compound nouns can also be singular nouns, plural nouns, countable nouns, uncountable nouns, concrete nouns, abstract nouns, common nouns, or proper nouns.

So many kinds of nouns! Did you know that adjectives has just as much variety, too? Learn more about the different kinds of adjectives.

Examples of compound nouns

Compound nouns come in three different varieties: nouns made of multiple words combined into one word, nouns made of separate words, or nouns made from multiple words connected with hyphens. Let’s look at examples of compound nouns. As you take a look at these compound nouns, think about what other types of nouns these words could also be.

  • Single-word compound nouns: headache, brainstorm, volleyball, gunfire, bedroom, horseplay, housecat, waterworks, scoreboard, overtime, underwear, meatloaf
  • Multiple-word compound nouns: jump rope, house party, inner circle, police officer, banana split, lightning rod, fish fry, monkey bars, rock salt, rat race, boxing ring
  • Hyphenated compound nouns: knee-socks, push-up, jack-in-the-box, merry-go-round, know-it-all, forget-me-not, daughter-in-law, eight-year-olds, self-respect

If you’re curious, discover more about compound nouns!

Collective nouns

Collective nouns are singular nouns that refer to groups of people or things. Collective nouns can have plural forms: the plural of gang is gangs, for example.

Examples of collective nouns

In general, there are three types of collective nouns: collective nouns to groups of people, groups of animals, and groups of things.

  • People: army, crew, gang, squad, band, club, cult, clergy, posse, mob, staff, team, jury
  • Animals: herd, swarm, flock, school, litter, pride, colony, hive, gaggle, pack
  • Things: bunch, stack, pile, wad, collection, deck, bouquet, bundle, set

We’ve gathered all the information you need about collective nouns right here!

How to use compound and collective nouns

For the most part, both compound and collective nouns are relatively simple to use in sentences. Compound nouns in particular don’t have any special rules unique to them, and a compound noun will instead follow the rules of what other type of noun it is.

Compound nouns that are singular nouns will use singular verbs, and compounds nouns that are uncountable nouns typically won’t be able to use an indefinite article, to name just two examples.

Collective nouns can be a bit trickier at times. Most collective nouns are treated as singular nouns when the group is acting as a single unit or acting in unison. For example, we generally say (in American English, at least) The team wins every year because every member of the team is acting as one to win games.

However, in some instances (including in British English) it is more natural to use a plural verb in the sentence The team are doing different exercise routines because the individual team members are doing different things.

Many writers try to avoid awkward (but correct) sentences like these and will instead write the sentence as The members of the team are each doing different exercise routines. Both sentences are grammatically correct, so don’t be surprised if you see a seemingly singular collective noun use a plural verb.

Before we move on, there is one especially strange word that you should keep in mind. The word police is a collective noun that is also an uncountable noun without a plural form. This word always uses a plural verb as in The police search for criminals. Make sure to remember this exception when you use this word so nobody calls the grammar police on you!

Tips for differentiating compound vs. collective nouns

To begin with, the easiest way to tell most compound and collective nouns apart is to look at if the noun is formed from multiple words. If it isn’t, it cannot be a compound noun. For example, the words squad, troupe, and pack are not compound nouns.

If a noun is formed from multiple words, though, we need to look closer. First, we must determine if the noun is a singular noun. If it is, we must then check if the noun is referring to a group of people, animals, or things or only one. If it is a singular noun that only refers to one person, animal, or thing, it is not a collective noun.

Let’s use these tips to investigate the words collection and firefighters:

  • Collection is not a noun formed from multiple words so we can say right away that it isn’t a compound noun. It is, however, a collective noun since it is a singular noun that refers to multiple objects.
  • The noun firefighters is formed from the words fire and fighters so it is indeed a compound noun. But is it a collective noun? Well, it is a plural noun so we first have to look at its singular form firefighter. This noun refers to one single person that fights fires. Because this word doesn’t refer to a group as a singular noun, neither it or its plural form firefighters are collective nouns.

A very important thing to remember is that, while rare, it is certainly possible for a noun to be both a compound noun and a collective noun. For example, the word glee club is a compound noun formed from the words glee and club. At the same time, glee club is a singular noun that refers to a group of singers. So, it is also a collective noun.

Let’s finish things up with a quick test to see if you have mastered compound and collective nouns. Read the following list of nouns and see if you can understand why each one is a compound noun, a collective noun, neither, or both.

  1.  pumpkin
  2.  lunchtime
  3.  family
  4.  firing squad
  5.  service dogs
  6.  outer space
  7.  brass band

All the nouns, none of the errors

Improve your writing with Thesaurus.com’s Grammar Coach™, which catches grammar and spelling errors and provides Thesaurus-powered synonym suggestions. Using machine learning, this tool can definitely correct tricky subject-verb agreement issues—and more. Whether you’re writing about a person, place, or thing, perfect grammar has never been easier!

Demonstrate your mastery of compound and collective nouns by taking this quiz!

Answers: 1. Neither 2. Compound (Refers to one period of time.) 3. Collective (Singular noun that refers to multiple people.) 4. Both (Multiple-word singular noun that refers to multiple soldiers.) 5. Compound (The singular “service dog” only refers to one animal.) 6. Compound (Refers to one very big place.) 7. Both (Multiple-word singular noun that refers to multiple musicians.)

Collect all your knowledge on nouns and take this quiz to see how well you can tell them apart.

Previous What Are Collective Nouns And How Do You Use Them? Next Simple Present Tense: Rules And Examples