Collective noun

Collective noun

In linguistics, a collective noun is a word used to define a group of objects, where objects can be people, animals, emotions, inanimate things, concepts, or other things. For example, in the phrase "a pride of lions", pride is a collective noun.

Most collective nouns encountered in everyday speech, such as "group", are mundane and are not specific to one kind of constituent object. For example, the terms "group of people", "group of dogs", and "group of ideas" are all correct uses. Others, especially words belonging to the large subset of collective nouns known as terms of venery (words for groups of animals), are specific to one kind of constituent object. For example, "pride" as a term of venery refers to lions, but not to dogs or llamas.

Collective nouns should not be confused with mass nouns, or with the collective grammatical number.


Derivational collectives

Derivation accounts for many collective words. Because derivation is a slower and less productive word formation process than the more overtly syntactical morphological methods, there are fewer collectives formed this way. As with all derived words, derivational collectives often differ semantically from the original words, acquiring new connotations and even new denotations.

The English endings -age and -ade often signify a collective. Sometimes the relationship is easily recognizable: baggage, drainage, blockade. However, even though the etymology is plain to see, the derived words take on quite a special meaning.

German uses the prefix Ge- to create collectives. The root word often undergoes umlaut and suffixation as well as receiving the Ge- prefix. Nearly all nouns created in this way are of neuter gender. Examples include:

  • das Gebirge, "group of mountains", from der Berg, "mountain"
  • das Gepäck, "luggage, baggage" from der Pack, "pack, bundle, pile"
  • das Geflügel, "poultry, fowl (birds)" from late MHG gevlügel(e), under the influence of der Flügel, "wing", from MHG gevügel, from OHG gifugili = collective formation, from fogal, "bird"
  • das Gefieder, "plumage" from die Feder, "feather"

In Swedish one example is the different words for mosquitos in the collective form and in the individual form:

  1. mygga (individual mosquito), plural: myggor
  2. mygg (mosquitos as a collective)

Metonymic merging of grammatical number

Two good examples of collective nouns are "team" and "government", which are both words referring to groups of (usually) people. Both "team" and "government" are count nouns. (Consider: "one team", "two teams", "most teams"; "one government", "two governments", "many governments"). However, confusion often stems from the fact that plural verb forms are often used in British English with the singular forms of these count nouns (for example: "The team have finished the project."). Conversely, in the English language as a whole, singular verb forms can often be used with nouns ending in "-s" that were once considered plural (for example: "Physics is my favorite academic subject"). This apparent "number mismatch" is actually a quite natural and logical feature of human language, and its mechanism is a subtle metonymic shift in the thoughts underlying the words.

In British English, it is generally accepted that collective nouns can take either singular or plural verb forms depending on the context and the metonymic shift that it implies. For example, "the team is in the dressing room" (formal agreement) refers to the team as an ensemble, whilst "the team are fighting among themselves" (notional agreement) refers to the team as individuals. This is also British English practice with names of countries and cities in sports contexts; for example, "Germany have won the competition.", "Madrid have lost three consecutive matches.", etc. In American English, collective nouns almost invariably take singular verb forms (formal agreement). In cases where a metonymic shift would be otherwise revealed nearby, the whole sentence may be recast to avoid the metonymy. (For example, "The team are fighting among themselves" may become "the team members are fighting among themselves" or simply "The team is fighting.") See American and British English differences - Formal and notional agreement.

A good example of such a metonymic shift in the singular-to-plural direction (which, generally speaking, only occurs in British English) is the following sentence: "The team have finished the project." In that sentence, the underlying thought is of the individual members of the team working together to finish the project. Their accomplishment is collective, and the emphasis is not on their individual identities, yet they are at the same time still discrete individuals; the word choice "team have" manages to convey both their collective and discrete identities simultaneously. A good example of such a metonymic shift in the plural-to-singular direction is the following sentence: "Mathematics is my favorite academic subject." The word "mathematics" may have originally been plural in concept, referring to mathematic endeavors, but metonymic shift—that is, the shift in concept from "the endeavors" to "the whole set of endeavors"—produced the usage of "mathematics" as a singular entity taking singular verb forms. (A true mass-noun sense of "mathematics" followed naturally.)

Nominally singular pronouns can be collective nouns taking plural verbs, according to the same rules that apply to other collective nouns. For example, it is correct British English or American English usage to say: "None are so fallible as those who are sure they're right." In this case, the plural verb is used because the context for "none" suggests more than one thing or person.[1]

Confounding of collective noun and mass noun

There is often confusion about, and confounding of, the two different concepts of collective noun and mass noun. Generally, collective nouns are not mass (non-count) nouns, but rather are a special subset of count nouns. However, the term "collective noun" is often used to mean "mass noun" (even in some dictionaries[citation needed] ), because users confound two different kinds of verb number invariability:

  1. that seen with mass nouns such as "water" or "furniture", with which only singular verb forms are used because the constituent matter is grammatically nondiscrete (although it may ["water"] or may not ["furniture"] be etically nondiscrete); and
  2. that seen with collective nouns, which is the result of the metonymical shift, discussed earlier, between the group and its (both grammatically and etically) discrete constituents.

Some words, including "mathematics" and "physics", have developed true mass-noun senses despite having grown from count-noun roots.

Terms of venery (words for groups of animals)

The tradition of using collective nouns that are specific to certain kinds of animals stems from an English Medieval hunting tradition, dating back to at least the fifteenth century. Terms of venery [2] or nouns of assembly were used by gentlemen to distinguish themselves from yeomen and others and formed part of their education. Only a few of the terms were for groups of animals; others, such as "singular" for boars, described their characteristics or habits of life. "Singular" may also be a corruption of the French ("sanglier"). Misunderstandings over the centuries led to all the terms being regarded as collective nouns and some became unrecognisable through changes to the language and transcription errors: "besynys" (for ferrets) became "fesynes" instead of "busy-ness".

Sometimes a term of venery will apply to a group only in a certain context. "Herd" can properly refer to a group of wild horses, but not to a group of domestic horses.[citation needed] A "paddling of ducks" only refers to ducks on water. A group of geese on the ground is referred to as a "gaggle of geese" while a "skein of geese" would refer to them in flight.

Usage authorities have said that the lesser-known words of this type are not needed for practical purposes[3] and that some are "the result of light-hearted creativity rather than observation"[3] or "facetious".[4] Nevertheless there is still interest in collective nouns, and the coining of candidate collective nouns has been a (usually humorous) pastime of many writers, including nouns pertaining to things other than animals, such as professions, e.g. a "sequitur of logicians".

Linguistics concepts


English language



  1. ^ Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (4th ed., 2000), p. 10.
  2. ^ Lipton, James (1993). An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition. USA: Penguin Books. pp. 5–7. ISBN 0 14 01.7096 0. 
  3. ^ a b Todd, Loreto; Hancock, Ian (1986). International English Usage. Psychology Press. p. 133–134. ISBN 0415051029. Retrieved 2011-04-04. 
  4. ^ Harris, Theodore L.; Hodges, Richard E. (1995). International Reading Association. p. 271. ISBN 0872071383. 
  • Hodgkin, John. Proper Terms: An attempt at a rational explanation of the meanings of the Collection of Phrases in "The Book of St Albans", 1486, entitled "The Compaynys of beestys and fowlys" and similar lists., Transactions of the Philological Society 1907-1910 Part III, pp 1 - 187, Kegan, Paul, Trench & Trübner & Co, Ltd, London, 1909.
  • Shulman, Alon. A Mess of Iguanas... A Whoop of Gorillas: An Amazement of Animal Facts. Penguin. (First published Penguin 2009.) ISBN 9781846142550.
  • Lipton, James. An Exaltation of Larks, or The "Veneral" Game. Penguin. (First published Grossman Publishers 1968.) (Penguin first reprint 1977 ISBN 0140045368); in 1993 it was republished in Penguin with The Ultimate Edition as part of the title with the ISBN 0140170960 Hardcover Paperback
  • PatrickGeorge. A filth of starlings. PatrickGeorge. (First published PatrickGeorge 2009.) ISBN 9780956255815.
  • PatrickGeorge. A drove of bullocks. PatrickGeorge. (First published PatrickGeorge 2009.) ISBN 9780956255808.

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