Blog - Proofreading and Copy Editing

Collective Nouns: Singular or plural?

A collective noun is a singular noun used to describe a collection of things (collection being the collective noun in that sentence, for example). Other common collective nouns include group, team, crowd, herd or family, as well as less obvious ones such as government or business (and proper nouns of these forms, e.g. the Simpsons, Google).

As a proofreader, one encounters a plethora of queries regarding collective nouns on a regular basis. Almost always, the confusion arises because it is unclear how the verb should agree with the noun.

The answer is perhaps easier than you might expect: almost all collective nouns can be treated as either singular or plural. For example, the following are all correct:

The flock was gathered into the sheep pen.

The flock were gathered into the sheep pen.

Coca-Cola is launching a new advertising campaign.

Coca-Cola are launching a new advertising campaign.

The key, as so often when proofreading, is consistency. Even the most diligent proofreader can be hard pressed to spot every single collective noun in a piece of writing and ensure each one obeys the same chosen rule throughout, but particularly when dealing with governments or businesses, it is best to make a blanket decision beforehand as to whether they should be treated as singular or plural.

Also be cautious of the very small number of collective nouns that cannot be treated either way; the most common you are likely to encounter are people and police. These are always treated as plural.

The people have a right to free speech. NOT The people has a right to free speech.

NB: Don’t confuse collective nouns with mass nouns, which are nouns that cannot be counted by number (e.g. water, compassion, biology) and should always be treated as singular.


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