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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. In American English, they are more commonly used as singular nouns, though this is not always the case.
Indeed, this is one of the few points of grammar where British English and American English usage may differ.  
   The government have decided to increase security measures
   The government has decided to increase security measures
are both perfectly acceptable in British English. In US English, the second option is preferred.
   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 !
   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.
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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 it will usually be treated as a singular noun
  If, on the other hand, the collective unit is being seen as a group of individuals, each doing things as an individual, then in British English it will normally be used as a plural noun.
  • 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. The justification comes from an attachment to old prescriptive grammar rules, which required a singular noun subject to be followed by a singular verb. However this in turn can lead to a different grammatical mismatch as in... The crowd is rising to their feet, which is no more grammatically consistent than The crowd are rising to their feet.  

Linked nouns. When two nouns together designate a single item, such as fish and chips or strawberries and cream, they are used as a singular, as in Fish and chips is my favourite meal.  
If we used a plural verb, we would be saying that fish (separately) and chips (separately) are both favourites, so would have to say: Fish and chips are my favourite meals.

Exceptions and special cases

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

Pair and couple
In British English, pair and couple, referring to two people, are usually followed by a verb in the plural.
British English: The couple are getting married in the spring.
In American English they are usually followed by a verb in the singular.
However, when pair or couple are followed by of  (as in a couple of people, a pair of ducks), the verb is usually in the plural in both British and American English when referring to people.
When referring to objects, it depends very much on whether the pair is seen as a unit or a random group. 
A couple of men were sitting on the damp stones  ( Ernest Hemingway)
There were a couple of books on the table.
There's a pair of socks on the bed.

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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