How to use collective nouns correctly

I have recently been a little irritated by people’s use of collective nouns, or rather the use of the verb with them. Many people seem to think that it should always be a plural verb.

Now, collective nouns do refer to a number of things, but these things are ‘collected’ into one, hence the name ‘collective nouns.’

When I was a little girl at school, we learned a lot of collective nouns:

a FLOCK of sheep
a HERD of cows
a MURDER of crows (I particularly liked this one.)
a CHARM of larks

There are also a great many more. They all refer to a GROUP of people or things. Here are some more examples.

army
team
choir
committee
array
council
school
class
pack
shoal
family

You get the idea? Each of those things are made up of a number of people, animals or things. The problem arises as to whether the verb that is with it should be singular or plural.

What has been annoying me recently is that many people, and educated ones too, are using the plural all the time with these nouns when they should be using the singular.

The rule is that if they are acting as a group, all doing the same thing, then the noun takes the singular verb, but if they are acting as individuals, then the verb should be plural.

I’ll give you some examples.

One is in a song for Manchester United Football Club. The fans sing ‘United ARE the team for me.’ now, they are all playing a game of football, and all the players are acting together (one would hope) in order to wim that game. The team is acting as a unit. Therefore the song should be ‘United IS the team for me.’

When the match is over, the players are no longer acting together. They are going home to their separate families and so now we say ‘The team are all going home.’

Here is another. When a flock of sheep sees the sheepdogs coming, they bunch together and run in the same direction to try to get away from them. They are all acting together to try to escape this perceived threat. This time it is correct to say ‘The flock WAS driven towards the gate by the sheepdogs so that it could eat the new grass.’ Note the use of the singular pronoun too.

When they are through the gate and in the pasture, the sheep will spread around, each one grazing, but not acting as a unit. Therefore we use the plural and say ‘The flock are now eating the new grass and they seem to be enjoying it.’ Here the verb and pronoun are plural because the sheep are acting as individuals.

I hope this has helped you to sort out these problems. Grammar can be a bit tricky at times, but I think it is important. People generally do not complain about correct grammar, but incorrect grammar can make a reader stop reading a book, and not buy any others by that author. They also tell other people not to bother. I know, I have done it myself.

Another downside of poor grammar is when applying for jobs. If your grammar is poor, your letter will go straight in the bin.

Please leave a comment by clicking on the comment button. I love reading what you have to say, and answering you.

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