Collective nouns: agreement

A collective noun is a word, usually in the singular, that describes a collection or group of people, animals or things (A). But is it a collection is or a collection are? It depends on your variety of English and what you’re trying to say Fowler’s!

  1. examples of collective nouns
    1. collection
    2. group
    3. committee
    4. audience
    5. flock
    6. herd
    7. pride (of lions)
    8. gaggle (of geese)
    9. luggage
    10. cutlery
    11. library
    12. crockery

Verb and pronoun agreement with collective nouns in British English (BrE) differs from that in American English (AmE). American English has the simpler usage, although the British usage has its logic.

Agreement with collective nouns in British English

In BrE, either singular (B) or plural agreement (C) is used, taking care to ensure that any pronouns follow the verb’s agreement, especially in formal contexts. In (B4) the agreement has flipped from singular agreement in the verb to plural agreement in the pronoun. The correct version is shown in (B5).

  1. BrE: singular agreement
    1. Sam’s stamp collection is worth over £500.
    2. The committee makes its decision tomorrow.
    3. The committee disagrees with Dr Foster.
    4. The audience boos to show their disapproval of the so-called comedian.
    5. The audience boos to show its disapproval of the so-called comedian.
  2. BrE: plural agreement
    1. The committee disagree among themselves.

The difference in BrE is not as complicated as it might seem: it depends on whether the collection is thought of as a single unit or as discrete individuals. in (A3), the committee as a whole disagree with Dr Foster, whereas in (B1), some members of the committee disagree with other members of the committee. That is, the committee in (A3) is a single unit, whereas the committee in (B1) refers to individual members.

  1. BrE: collections of inanimate objects
    1. Sam’s luggage was with the porter.
    2. Phil can only look on in horror as the crockery he dropped shatters on the tiles.

Collections of inanimate objects take singular agreement (D).

When the collective noun is followed by of + noun, the noun is plural, which tends to induce plural verb agreement (E1), although not always, especially when the items are inanimate (E2).

  1. BrE: collective noun + of + noun.plural
    1. A crowd of people were gathering in the square.
    2. Sam’s collection of stamps is worth over £500.

Agreement with collective nouns in American English

In AmE, the verb and any relevant pronouns usually take singular agreement (E).

  1. AmE: singular agreement
    1. Phil’s stamp collection is worth more than $500.
    2. The committee makes its decision tomorrow.
    3. A flock of birds swoops over the river every evening.
    4. Phil’s collection of stamps is worth more than $500.

The singular form (F1) is not used for the AmE equivalent of BrE (C1). Instead PC 1, it’s possible to use singular agreement for the verb with plural agreement for the pronoun (F2), which is akin to BrE (B4). This might be OK in informal contexts, but it’s perhaps better, as in BrE, to ensure that the same agreement is used throughout (F3).

  1. AmE: equivalent of BrE (C1)
    1. The committee disagrees among itself.
    2. The committee disagrees with themselves.
    3. The committee members disagree among themselves.

References

  • Jeremy Butterfield 2015 Fowler’s dictionary of modern English Usage 4th Oxford OUP Fowler’s
  • Personal communication