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Linguapress English Grammar

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Tricky points of English ...
Explaining the everyday words and English grammar points that can cause most confusion

Collective nouns in English

and how to use them

Collective nouns  - singular or plural ?

Collective nouns, or group nouns, are nouns such as family, government, class or committee, which refer to groups of people or things.
While these are technically singular nouns, they are commonly used as if they were plurals, specially in British English.
   The government have decided to increase security measures
   The government has decided to increase security measures
are both perfectly acceptable.
   The whole class is going to take the test again
sounds a bit strange; prefer
    The whole class are going to take the test again

because in this case, it is clear that each student of the class will be taking the test again individually.  At least, that is what the teachers intend should happen !
   Sometimes a plural is essential, even in American English, for example:
    My family are  immigrants
We could not possibly say
My family is immigrants   or (even worse!) My family is an immigrant.
In this case, it is context that requires a plural verb.  In other cases, a singular verb will be possible:
     My whole family is /are coming to see me this weekend.

What is the rule ?

Essentially, if the collective unit - family, government, committee, club, committee or whatever is being treated as a single entity, doing things collectively, then we will usually put the verb into the singular.
  If, on the other hand, the collective unit is being seen as a group of individuals, each doing things as an individual, then we will use a plural.
  • The committee has decided .... gives the impression that the committee has made a unanimous decision.
  • The committee have decided .... gives the impression that the members of the committee have all (or mostly) decided of their own individual free will.
(In modern American usage, people tend more often to use a singular verb with collective nouns, though even in the USA this is not always the case. )

An exception

The word police is always used in the plural.  We cannot say:  the police is.....

Proper nouns (names)

Corporate names, like Google or Facebook or Apple, are a specific type of collective noun. They are used in the same way as the common nouns shown in the examples above.
  •  We found out today that Google are backing up their Location API  (Washington Post, May 2008)
  • So Google is good and bad in one sentence for Donald Trump (Washington Post, Sept 2016)
And here are two sentences from the same writer published in the Guardian newspaper in Nov. 2011  
  • Microsoft is investing massively ........  but Microsoft are still selling copies of Word.


Take care !
When a collective noun is used as a plural, the pronouns used to refer back to is must be they / them / their.
When a collective noun is used as a singular, the pronouns used to refer back to is must be it / its.
   In its monthly report, the committee says that the situation is getting better.
  In their monthly report, the committee say that the situation is getting better.

List of important collective nouns

There are at least 100 nouns that can be used as collective nouns, but only a small number of them are commonly used, and need to be remembered;  here are twenty of the most important:
army   audience  class club  committee company congregation   corporation council  family  firm  group  jury majority   minority   parliament   public  police   school  team  

Many other collective nouns are rarely used. There are many collective nouns used for groups of animals; but apart from a flock of birds or sheep, and a herd of cattle, most native English speakers do not know them.

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