A collective noun is a word that is used to refer to a number of people, animals, or things that we group together and speak of as a whole. Some examples: a bunch of bananas, a herd of water buffaloes (plural of buffalo can also be buffalo), a litter of puppies, a flock of sheep, and a package of cookies.
The use of a collective noun in a sentence can cause difficulty as to whether it takes a singular or plural verb. It depends on how the collective noun is to be expressed – as a group performing together or individually. If members of the group are viewed as a single unit acting together, a singular verb is used. If they are regarded as separate members acting individually, a plural verb is used.
- The family is planning an overseas trip.
(The family is viewed as a single group planning for an overseas trip together, so it takes a singular verb.)
- The family are discussing about the plan.
(Members of the family are looked at separately, taking part in the discussion and are not acting as a group, so a plural verb is used.)
Singular and plural collective nouns
Following are examples of collective nouns being used as singular and plural nouns.
- The explorers stumbled across a species of plant unknown to science.
- Different fish species have been found in the coastal waters of the island.
- Data indicates that most of the offenders come from broken home.
- We will not draw any conclusion until we have looked at all the data.
- Statistics is included in this year's Mathematics syllabus.
- The statistics tell us the current trend is towards more consumers' spending.
- The enemy is calling for a ceasefire.
- The enemy were advised to surrender. (The plural of enemy is enemies. But enemy, although a singular noun, can take a plural verb such as were when it is regarded as a group of enemies.)
- Your puppy is sleeping underneath my car. (Preposition)
- His left eye was swollen with a bruise underneath. (Adverb)
Usually, the collective noun takes a singular verb as it is looked at as a single unit. But if the emphasis is on the individual parts, the collective noun is treated as a plural and a plural verb is used.
- The team is in the bus heading for the stadium.
- The team are discussing about their opponent.
- The jury has retired to consider its verdict.
- The jury were unanimous in their verdict.
- The public has the right to know how the investigation is going.
- The public are calling for the bomber to be hanged or face life imprisonment.
If you are uncertain about whether a plural verb should be used, you can rewrite the following..
- The team members are discussing about their opponent.
- Members of the jury/The jury members were unanimous in their verdict.
- Members of the public are calling for the bomber to be hanged or face life imprisonment.
Collective noun must use correct pronoun
A collective noun treated as singular must use a singular possessive pronoun. Likewise, a plural collective noun takes a plural possessive pronoun.
- Our team has won its first trophy. (The singular possessive pronoun is its, and it agrees with the singular collective noun team.)
- Our team are deciding on the strategy for their next game. (Plural possessive pronoun their agrees with the plural collective noun team.)
- The full orchestra led by its new conductor is performing in the city.
- The orchestra do not agree to the venue for their next performance.
- The audience showed its approval by clapping and cheering.
- When the curtain came down, the audience began leaving their seats.
Composite subject takes a singular verb
Two subjects can be so closely linked that they form a composite subject and expresses a single idea. A composite subject takes a singular verb.
- Time and tide waits for no man.
- Bread and jam is what he eats most in the morning.
- Bread and breakfast is what we will look for next.
- Spaghetti and meatballs is my favourite dish.
(A list of collective nouns can be found on List 3)