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Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Collective nouns and subject-verb agreement

A collective noun is a special type of noun which refers to a group of people or things.  Although these nouns denote individual members which can be considered as a whole, when using these we have a choice as to whether we treat the noun as a single entity grammatically, or as a collection of individuals.  Therefore, collective nouns behave differently from other nouns as they can take a singular or plural pronoun substitute depending on whether you wish to emphasize the group as a single entity, acting together, or a number of people or things acting individually.  When you have decided whether you will need to use the singular or plural pronoun, you can then make sure your verb agrees. 

In American English, the singular agreement with pronoun substitution and verb is more common.  In British English, either singular or plural agreement is acceptable, depending on the attitude of the writer to the group and the activity being undertaken: is the group acting in accord, or is there a measure of individuality with the actions of the group?  However, there are a few collective nouns which always take plural verbs in British English, the most common being ‘police’ and ‘people’ (

Let’s look at some examples of how the agreement can be varied with collective nouns according to the attitude being adopted. 

The army were unhappy with the changes to their uniforms.  (Here the writer is considering the individual feelings of the members.
The army was huge.  (Here the writer is considering the army as a single unit.)

The council is meeting on Friday to consider its response to the consultation.  (Here the council is considered as a single, impersonal entity engaging in a single enterprise to provide a single, collective response.)
The council are meeting on Friday to consider their response to the consultation.  (In this example, the council is considered as a group of individual councillors meeting to put forward their individual opinions and come to an agreement about their response.)

When using collective nouns, it is important to make sure that the verb is in agreement with any subsequent pronouns.  For example, in the sentence ‘The government  were disappointed with public reaction to its policy.’ Either the singular form of the verb ‘was’ should be used, or the pronoun ‘its’ should be changed to ‘their’.

The flexibility to take either singular or plural agreement is extended to collective nouns with a partitive structure (the collective noun is linked to a plural noun with ‘of’, e.g. a flock of sheep).  In the following examples, the first herd takes the plural, whereas the second takes the singular.

A herd of elephants begin to cross the fast flowing river.
A herd of elephants is called a parade.  (Another collective noun is ‘a parade of elephants’.)

So, singular or plural, context and writer attitude are key!