Collective Nouns: How Groups Are Named in English (2024)

Everyone probably knows that a group of cows is called a herd and perhaps that a group of lions is called a pride, but did you know that a group of otters is sometimes referred to as a raft? Or that a group of swans can be called a wedge—but only when they’re flying?

These terms for congregated animals are examples of collective nouns: nouns that refer to groups or collections. There are around two hundred collective nouns in the English language.

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What is a collective noun?

A collective noun is a common noun that names a group of people, creatures, or objects:

The audience at the midafternoon showing was especially appreciative of the comedic parts of the movie.

Traffic on the road was temporarily stopped by a flock of wild turkeys that was making its way across.

Paleontologists found a set of fossils in Argentina from the bones of an Achillesaurus or a closely related species.

Are collective nouns singular or plural?

Although they refer to multiple things at once by definition, collective nouns are singular in form. This can make choosing the right verb to use with a collective noun when it’s the subject of a sentence or clause (that is, maintaining subject-verb agreement) a bit tricky—it’s almost like they’re plural and singular at the same time!

In American English, collective nouns more often than not appear with singular verbs:

The film festival’s selection committee consists of filmmakers, film programmers, and critics.

Residents of the town said a drove of pigs that had escaped from a local farm was destroying their yards and gardens.

However, it’s also correct—and quite common—to treat a collective noun as plural when what is being communicated is that the members or components of a group are acting individually rather than as a unit:

My family mostly have their birthdays in the fall and winter.

The choir were all warming up in different keys.

Among the student body, the majority are Californians.

In British English, it’s far more common to treat collective nouns as plural:

The band were on tour all summer.

It seemed like the staff were always taking their lunch break when we stopped by the shop.

3 tips on how to use collective nouns

As we’ve seen, keeping collective nouns in agreement with the verbs they appear alongside can be tricky. Once you’ve mastered that, collective nouns are simple to use in your writing. Here are a few more tips to help you along.

1 Lean toward singular

A good rule of thumb for using collective nouns in American English is to err on the side of treating them as singular. In other words, unless there’s a compelling argument for making them plural—as in the examples in the preceding section, in which the emphasis is on the individual members of the group—it’s always appropriate to use a singular verb with them.

The club meets every Wednesday after school.

The pod of dolphins was approaching the ship.

Note that there are a few exceptions to this rule of thumb, such as the collective noun police, which always takes a plural verb.

The police were already there when we arrived on the scene.

2 Make the subject plural

If you are struggling with a sentence because a particular collective noun / plural verb combination sounds awkward to your ear, one option is to turn the collective noun into a more straightforward plural by adding “members of” or similar. Compare the two examples below. In the first, the collective noun jury is the subject. In the second, the plural noun members has become the subject. Both sentences are grammatically correct, but in the second, no reader will trip on or question the use of the plural noun were.

The jury were staying in hotel rooms while they were sequestered.

The members of the jury were staying in hotel rooms while they were sequestered.

3 Be consistent

When you decide whether to treat a collective noun as a singular or a plural, make sure you’re consistent about its number throughout any section of writing that it appears in. For example, if you use a pronoun to refer back to the collective noun, it should also agree with the collective noun and the verb in number.

The company is doing very well this quarter. It has recouped most of its losses from last winter.

The group of passengers will scatter as soon as they disembark.

Examples of collective nouns

Many collective nouns—such as group, bunch, couple, and pair—are general enough or flexible enough that they can be applied to people, animals, or objects.

A bunch of my coworkers are going to that concert.

Sam picked up a bunch of magazines before getting on their flight.

Other collective nouns are more specific in what they refer to.

Common collective nouns for people

  • army
  • audience
  • band
  • board
  • cast
  • choir
  • class
  • club
  • coalition
  • committee
  • community
  • company
  • congregation
  • corporation
  • council
  • crew
  • crowd
  • family
  • firm
  • gang
  • group
  • jury
  • majority
  • minority
  • mob
  • orchestra
  • panel
  • parliament
  • party
  • public
  • school
  • staff
  • team
  • troupe

Common collective nouns for objects

  • array
  • assortment
  • bouquet
  • caravan
  • collection
  • constellation
  • fleet
  • forest
  • galaxy
  • heap
  • parcel
  • pile
  • range
  • series
  • set
  • shower
  • stack
  • stream
  • wad

Common collective nouns for animals

  • brood
  • cloud
  • colony
  • flock
  • gaggle
  • herd
  • horde
  • litter
  • pack
  • pride
  • school
  • shoal
  • swarm

Collective noun FAQs

What is a collective noun?

A collective noun is a common noun that names a group of people, creatures, or objects.

How many collective nouns exist in English?

There are around two hundred collective nouns in English.

How do you know whether a collective noun should be singular or plural?

Collective nouns are singular in form but plural in meaning. In American English, they are usually treated as singular and followed by a singular verb. However, many of them can be treated as plural in contexts where the emphasis is on the individual members or components of a group rather than on the group as a whole. In British English, collective nouns are much more frequently treated as plural.

How do you know what pronoun to use to refer to a collective noun?

A pronoun that refers back to a collective noun should agree in number with that collective noun and, if the collective noun is acting as the subject of a sentence or clause, with the verb.

Collective Nouns: How Groups Are Named in English (2024)

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