Collective nouns are those nouns that refer to a group of something as a whole unit, such as a company, team, personnel or troop. They are unique in the sense that they can function as a plural or singular noun without changing form, making them uniquely uniform. The inconsistencies come into play within the context of the sentence in which one is used.
Sound confusing? Sometimes it is, but understanding how to recognize whether a collective noun is singular or plural, using the appropriate verbs and pronouns and staying consistent makes your writing make more sense.
Collective nouns are always animate, meaning they are alive. As such, they sometimes require singular verbs and sometimes require plural verbs. Knowing which to use boils down to how the collective noun is used. Singular nouns take singular verbs. Plural nouns take plural verbs. If you are referring to the collective noun as a solidary unit that is doing the same thing at the same time, it is singular and requires a singular verb. Likewise, if the members of the collective noun are doing something different at the same time, it is plural and requires a plural verb.
Whether the noun is singular or plural, it is important to use the correct form of the verb to ensure the subject and verb of sentences are in agreement. Sometimes there are other nouns that modify the subject, but stay focused on the noun that constitutes the subject of the verb. Consider the following examples.
Example 1: The team practices every day.
“Team” is singular because all members of the team practice every day. The verb, “practices,” takes the singular form to maintain the subject/verb agreement.
Example 2: The jury does not always return the same verdict.
“Jury” is plural because within the context it is referring to all the members of the jury, who have different verdicts, so the individual members of the unit behave differently. The verb, “return,” takes the plural form to maintain the subject/verb agreement.
Example 3: The cast of actors rehearses three days per week.
Example 4:The cast read lines in separate rooms of the theatre before rehearsal.
In the first sentence, “cast” is singular because it refers to the group of actors as one unit that rehearses together three days per week. “Of actors” might make you think the noun is plural; however, “of actors” is a prepositional phrase that modifies the subject of the sentence, “cast.” The subject is clearer in the second sentence, where “cast” is the only subject. The members of the cast are acting individually by reading lines apart from one another; therefore, “cast” is plural and takes the plural form of the verb, “read.”
When using pronouns for collective nouns, you must consider whether the noun is referred to as a single unit or the members within the unit. Singular collective nouns require the use of the singular pronouns, such as “he,” “she” or “its.” Plural collective nouns require plural pronouns, such as “they” or “their.” Consider the below examples.
Example 1: The company was ready to file its taxes.
“Company” is singular because it is referred to as one unit, so it requires the singular pronoun of “its.” Using “their” to refer to a singular, collective noun is one of the biggest mistakes made when it comes to correctly using pronouns for collective nouns, so use extra caution in these situations.
Example 2: The jury did not agree on their verdict.
“Jury” is plural because the members of the jury are not performing the same action – they did not all agree, so a plural pronoun, “their,” is used.
While there is no strict grammar rule that dictates when a collective noun is plural or singular across the world of grammar as a whole, some style guides list a preference in certain situations. Make sure you are aware of rules for collective nouns within any applicable style guides to ensure what you write meets expected standards.
Some collective nouns are never viewed as plural, so it is important to recognize when those are used; in most cases, institutions, such as the British Parliament or U.S. Congress, are thought of as a single unit rather than a group of individuals.
Likewise, there are differences between the correct way to use collective nouns in American and British English. Staying aware of these differences is the difference between adhering to the norm and making you appear as someone who needs a grammar lesson or two.
The most important thing is to maintain consistency. If you decide a collective noun is singular, you must use both singular verbs and singular pronouns within the same context. Make sure to always remember that collective nouns are spelled uniformly despite whether they are singular or plural.