How to Use Collective Nouns
We’ve talked about subject-verb agreement before, and one of the hardest cases is when you’re using collective nouns.
Collective Nouns are nouns that name a group of people or things. These are words like team, company, class or audience—each is one specific thing, but they are comprised of multiple people.
So, are they single nouns, or plural nouns? Which verbs and pronouns should you use with them?
The short answer is it depends. It depends on how you’re using the words, and if you’re using American or British English. That’s not a very helpful answer, I realize, but it is the truth.
The most important thing to keep in mind when deciding which verb to use is whether the collective noun is acting as a single unit, or as a number of individuals.
Let’s consider a class. Let’s imagine that their teacher is giving a pop-quiz today. In that case, the class takes its exam. Since the class is acting as one unit, we use the singular form of the verb “takes” and the singular pronoun “its”.
After the quiz, the teacher assigns a research paper for everyone to do. Then, the class start their research papers. Each student in the class is working on their own paper, doing their own research and generally acting individually. Therefore, we use the plural “start” and “their”.
It all depends on what you want to emphasize. If you want to talk about the group as a unit, then use singulars. If you want to talk about the group as a collection of individuals, use plurals. It’s up to you, the writer, to determine which you’d rather emphasize.
There is a distinct difference, however, if you’re talking about American English versus British English. Americans generally tend to treat collective nouns as singular units—we think of a team as one group of players. In Britain, however, it’s more common to treat them as plural units—a group of players makes up a team. You see that a lot in sports writing—you’ll see phrases like San Francisco is winning and Manchester City are winning, depending on which form of English the writer is using. As a writer, you need to keep in mind who your audience is, and who you’re writing too, when deciding what verb to use.
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