Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

October 12, 2009

How to use collective nouns

This is the fourth and penultimate post in my series on nouns.

Collective nouns general rules.

The main things to be careful about when using collective nouns are; whether to use singular or plural verbs and which collocation you should choose to accompany the nouns.

What is a collective noun?

It is a noun that refers to a group of people or things. Examples are:

army, family, team, press, flock, committee, group

Singular or plural:

Generally speaking  collective nouns can be used in the singular or plural (grammatically it is a singular noun but in our mind’s eye we perceive a group).

  • The family are coming to dinner next week.
  • The army are planning a new offensive.
  • The finance committee meet once a month.
  • A flock of geese is flying over the lake.

A large number of proper nouns also fall into the collective noun type: the United Nations, the BBC,  the Air Force, Parliament, Ford, Coca Cola etc..


  1. Note, however, that in American English the plural form is often considered incorrect and the singular form preferred.
  2. We also tend to use a singular verb if the collective noun is used with the indefinite article a/an rather than the definite.    A team of accountants has been appointed to oversee the project.
  3. Some collective nouns always take the plural form:  police, people
  4. Some only take the singular: press, public

Collective nouns cannot be used with numbers:

  • We cannot say Four staff have been made redundant – rather – Four members of staff have been made redundant.

For more information on collective nouns 

Choosing the correct collocation

Now comes the fun bit!

  • a pride of lions
  • a host of angels
  • a swarm of bees
  • a clutch of eggs

The list goes on and on and even native speakers get into competitions about who know the most obscure ones (especially for animals).

These collocations (see my post on collocation in general) are mostly associated with certain groups collective nouns, most especially


  • a pack of wolves, a flock of birds, a shoal/school of fish, a herd of cows


  • a bunch of daffodils, a clump of trees, a bouquet of flowers

inanimate objects

  • a battery of tests, a batch of cakes, a set of books, a group of friends

Bunch of, group of and set of  are the most commonly used and can be attached to a variety of nouns.

So, how to choose which one? Again it is something to study and remember. Choose a group (the animal collocations can be fun) and try out a few.

For noun collocation in general try this exercise from Gapfillers.

For collective noun collocation try this .  or this

For a complete list of animal collocation             Just for fun – try this!

Next time – Proper nouns!



  1. I love collective nouns! It’s funny that there are ‘official’ collective nouns for many professions which are now rare (such as butlers, servants, candlestick makers etc.), and yet we haven’t settled on collective nouns for many of the common professions of today (such as estate agents, web designers, homeopaths etc.). I am running a little experiment to stimulate such discussion on Twitter. All Sorts searches for the #collectivenouns hashtag on Twitter, and parses any results for suggested collective nouns. You can even vote for your favourites, by retweeting them. Some of the best novel collective nouns are gathered here.

    Comment by Drew Neil — October 12, 2009 @ 10:43 pm | Reply

    • I like the deposit of millionaires and the spin of politicians )I suspect this is recent!). There are so many obscure ones but they must have made sense at some time. Sounds like an interesting project. I’ll keep an eye open for some to add. Thank you for the link.

      Comment by rliberni — October 13, 2009 @ 7:00 am | Reply

  2. I would like to contribute that this article is really very helpful infact the material provided on this blog is really meaningful and relevant for who se ever wants to improve his spoken english. impressive compilation, articulately presented, impressive thought process in the layout and well thought of the intricacies.Will definitely be a helpful tool for those seeking help in this direction.

    Comment by nivel — December 14, 2010 @ 11:41 am | Reply

    • Thank you for your kind comments. The blog is aimed at English language learners who are perhaps studying alone and need some help or at learners who are just interetsed in having some practical advice.

      Comment by rliberni — December 14, 2010 @ 11:53 am | Reply

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