Collective Nouns
[ Issue 41 ]

Collective Nouns fascinate Emily Bronto

Let Bikwil introduce you to Collective Nouns

Collective Nouns

Harlish Goop asks how many there really are in a cricket team — is it one or is it eleven?

Here is a short list of other such nouns culled quickly from various sources, a few of which you may not have seen before. Whatever else they are, some sure reflect great imagination. Interestingly, most are quite old, and many are obsolete — except for their use in lists like this.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


Have you ever heard discussions about the word Australia in sporting contexts? I mean, debates about which of the following sorts of cricketing statements is correct English:

Australia are 2 for 137


Australia is 2 for 137.

Let’s have a look at this.

You’ll no doubt know the expression collective noun, applied to nouns which refer to a group (usually of people or animals), but which are singular in form. Common examples are these words: family, government, committee, clergy, flock.

Most language sources (e.g. Pam Peters in her Cambridge Australian Style Guide) also include under the term groups of inanimate objects in addition to groups of living creatures. The American Heritage Book of English Usage; A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English, on the other hand, prefers the expression mass nouns for inanimate objects. It distinguishes such words (e.g. furniture, luggage) from collective nouns because “they cannot be counted individually”.

Nevertheless, there are other mass nouns where this does not apply, such as bunch, heap. While you can’t say a furniture or a luggage, you can say a bunch or a heap.

Questions then arise as to whether collective singulars take a singular or plural verb — as in our cricket team sentence.

Well, it depends on the context. Peters writes,

The choice of verb and pronoun (singular or plural) accords with the writer’s meaning, rather than being dictated by grammar.

In other words, the matter boils down to this: does the writer/speaker want to emphasise “the collective body or its individual members” (Peters)?

The American Heritage Book of English Usage gives these examples:

The family was united on this question.
The enemy is suing for peace.

In those cases the reference is to the collection as a whole, whereas in the following the reference is to the group’s individual members:

My family are always fighting among themselves.
The enemy were showing up in groups of three or four to turn in their weapons.

This “rule” seems to apply in America and in Australia, then, but not necessarily in Britain. According to The American Heritage Book of English Usage,

In British usage, collective nouns are more often treated as plurals:
The government have not announced a new policy.
The team are playing in the test matches next week.

In his Usage and Abusage, however, the New Zealand born British lexicographer Eric Partridge took the opposing view:

Such collective nouns as can be used either in the singular or in the plural . . . are singular when unity (a unit) is intended; plural, when the idea of plurality is predominant.

So did good old Henry Fowler (Modern English Usage):

Nouns of multitude . . . are treated as singular or plural at discretion — & sometimes, naturally, without discretion . . . In general it may be said that while there is always a better & a worse in the matter, there is seldom a right & a wrong . . .

Characteristically, Fowler had a go at non-agreement between noun, verb and pronoun, as in this example:

A waiter might as well serve one on a dirty plate as a journalist offer one such untidy stuff as: The University of London Press hopes to have ready the following additions to their series of . . .

Mass nouns like furniture and luggage, by the way, always take the singular.

But coming back to the cricketers, is it Australia is or Australia are? On this one, opinions vary, so make up your own mind. Most people in Australia, wrongly or rightly, use are.

What about those wonderful collectives for animals, like a pride of lions or a gaggle of geese? Do they take a singular or plural verb? The short answer, as above, is “Depends”.

Here is a short list of other such nouns culled quickly from various sources, a few of which you may not have seen before. Whatever else they are, some sure reflect great imagination. Interestingly, most are quite old, and many are obsolete — except for their use in lists like this:

shrewdness of apes (15th century)
clowder of cats (19th century)
skulk of foxes (18th century)
kindle of kittens (13th century)
exaltation of larks (15th century)
parliament of owls (1960s)
covey of partridges [also of grouse and ptarmigan] (15th century)
muster of peacocks (15th century)
eye of pheasants (15th century)
bevy of quails [also of roes, larks and, of course, ladies and maidens] (15th century)
plump of [animals that go in flocks, e.g. seals, fowl, whales, ducks] (16th century)
rout of wolves (17th century).

Not so old are the humorous (and sometimes derogatory) concoctions to do with various occupations:

column of accountants
galaxy of astronomers
bond of British secret agents
goring of butchers
pound of carpenters
solution of chemists
quaver of coloraturas
decorum of deans
wince of dentists
cross-section of geologists
guess of diagnosticians
recession of economists
grid of electrical engineers
hush [or shush] of librarians
stack of librarians
consternation of mothers
slumber of old guard
flush of plumbers
complex of psychologists
goggle of tourists
lot of used car dealers
absence of waiters.

Before I conclude, I’ll mention the fact that a few nouns are commonly not thought of as collectives — but they should be. Some of these are scientific terms. An interesting example is plankton, which the OED defines as

A collective name for all the forms of floating or drifting organic life at various depths in the ocean, or, by extension, in bodies of fresh water.

Trouble is, once you know this, every time you’re about to use it you have to decide whether to use a singular or plural verb. Not to worry. From what I’ve read, more often than not it gets a plural verb. For example,

Plankton generally have limited or no swimming ability and are transported through the water by currents and tides.

Even so, some writers correctly use it as a singular when the emphasis is on the group as a whole:
As a human resource, plankton has only begun to be developed and exploited. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

But look, unless you’re a marine biologist how often are you going to say or write this word, anyway?

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