Collective nouns and verb agreement

A herd of elephants. A team of players. A fleet of ships. Nouns that describe a group of people, animals, or things are called collective nouns.

Collective nouns don’t get special treatment. Grammatically they are treated the same way as any other noun.

A singular noun takes a singular verb, and a plural noun takes a plural verb.

A herd of elephants was drinking at the watering hole. The herd drinks there every night.

Watch out for the noun. It’s herd, so the verb agrees with the singular noun. It doesn’t agree with the word elephants, which is part of the phrase “herd of elephants“.

Different points of view

There is much controversy around collective nouns. In the United States collective nouns are treated as singular entities. Yet in Britain, nearly all collective nouns are used with a plural verb because they refer to groups, thereby deriving their “plural status” from their meaning.

From a strictly grammatical point of view this does not make sense. Grammar stands on its own; it does not take instructions from the meaning of words.

Plus, if a noun has a plural, how then can both, the singular and the plural noun, have plural verbs? There are various schools of thought and much debate on this topic. Some say whether the verb should be singular or plural, depends on the usage of the collective noun. Let’s explore that.

Example: Family

The family is going on holiday. While they are at their holiday destination, the family members do different things. According to the argument “it depends on the usage”, one could say:

The family are sightseeing, lazing around the pool, and visiting friends. Which makes no sense at all, since we are referring to a collective. Separately they are no longer “the family”, but individual family members who swim, sightsee, and visit friends.

Example: Team

The team is practising before tomorrow’s game. After practice some team members go home to rest, others meet with friends, and others watch TV.

It would be ridiculous to continue using the singular collective noun and the plural verb to say: The team go home to rest, meet with friends, and watch TV.

It’s nonsensical to continue using the collective noun when the members of the family/team/board of people or the group/pack/flock of animals don’t act collectively anymore. Rather refer to them as family members, team members, board members. Or as individuals: players (team), directors (board), elephants (herd), etc.

Examples of collective nouns 




A board of directors
A crowd of people
A panel of experts
A class of students
A team of players
A choir of singers

A flock of birds
A herd of cattle
A litter of kittens
A pack of wolves
A school of fish
A hive of bees
A pride of lions

A fleet of ships
A galaxy of stars
A bouquet of flowers
A range of mountains

© Andrea Paulsen