The collective corrective

Posted by on July 15, 2009

© Pix by Marti / Fotolia.comCollective nouns are tricky beasts. Or is the concept of collective nouns a tricky beast?

The question of whether a collective noun requires a singular or plural verb to agree with it is one many find difficult to grasp, including myself, but then I have the mighty brains of the dictionary team here to help me. Often you can wriggle around the question by rephrasing the sentence, but if some poor, uncertain linguist were to pin you down in the street (perhaps literally, because it means that much to some of them), you could give them this advice:

Go with either, depending on how you’re conceiving of the collective in question.

For example, the Beatles could be described as a cultural phenomenon. If referring to the members as a band, a single entity that defined pop music, you could say, “The band was by far the best to come out of England in the Sixties.” Alternatively, you can picture them as a group of individuals, in which case saying something like, “The band were always squabbling amongst themselves,” would be acceptable.

Austria is a lovely country,” can sit hand-in-hand with, “Austria are winning in the football,” because the team is a collection of individuals.

The main rule is that, if at all possible, when you’re writing a piece about a collective, be consistent in your usage, so that people won’t catch on and point out the deviation.

Linguists and wordsmiths derive much enjoyment from collective nouns, coining evocative or poetic phrases, or ones with subtle puns in them, to enrich the language and amuse themselves simultaneously. It was all the rage in the nineteenth century, when people like Joseph Strutt (in his book Sports and Pastimes of England) took great care in inventing and compiling them. Birds were common subjects, e.g.: ‘a parliament of owls’ or ‘a murder of crows’.

You can extemporise, of course, picking appropriate nouns that describe the objects in some way, e.g.:

a mendacity of politicians
a polyglot of encyclopaedias
a snafu of bureaucrats
a jollity of balloons

Feel free to come up with your own appropriate examples and post them here!

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