Although typically words that identify more than one person, place, or thing are made plural in the English language, collective nouns are an exception. This unique class of nouns denotes a group of people, animals, objects, or concepts or ideas as a single entity.
Like most linguistic developments, collective nouns have developed through time as a result of many different aspects. Venery nouns, those nouns used to specifically signify groups of animals, developed as a result of fifteenth century English hunting practices. Experienced hunters were educated in discussing groups of animals in specific collective ways, sometimes in reference to the animal's activities or habits. Uses of these phrases were also distinguished upper-class gentry from middle class agricultural workers. Other collective nouns are called derivational collectives -- derived as a result of language relationships and maintaining root word tendencies. Gradual shifts in the ways that words are used and understood have also contributed to the formation of this special class of nouns.
Confused about the differences between these types of nouns?
There are many types of nouns that refer to units or groups in a collective sense. Some of the most common include:
Nouns in the collective class can be used in either the singular or plural form depending on the context of the sentence. For example, family is a collective noun because it refers to more than one person sharing a relationship or camaraderie. However, you can also use this as a plural in referring to groups of families.
Using collective nouns in sentences can be confusing because it's sometimes difficult to discern whether to use plural or singular verbs and pronouns. To use verbs and pronouns correctly, identify whether the collective noun refers to a group or unit working as individuals or in unison. When the unit is acting in unison, it is appropriate to use the singular. When the members of the unit are acting as individuals, it is appropriate to use plural forms of verbs and pronouns. For example:
When group nouns signify units acting as individuals rather than in unison, it is also appropriate to add or replace words to create reference to the individuals – for example, adding the word "members" after collectives like board or committee, or inserting "players" for "team" or "students" for "class."
Many singular nouns have very unique collective forms that pertain specifically to that term. While most people are familiar with the more commonly used collectives such as a class of students or crowd of people, there are a large number of less common collectives. Many people find it interesting to read and learn what the appropriate collective forms of various nouns are. Many teachers, students, and other lovers of the English language also find it entertaining to list original collectives or come up with new ways to use them in fun or ironic ways.
There are a variety of online and printable worksheets, quizzes, and activities focused on collective and mass nouns that may be helpful resources for teachers and students. These include: