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Grammar Goddess?

Are collective nouns singular or plural?

A collective noun is made up of more than one countable thing or person. Some examples of collective nouns are: crowd, government, flock, mob, group, herd, array, jury, and audience.

So, if they are more than one thing or person, aren't they plural words? You can't have a crowd of one. Don't collective nouns need a plural verb for appropriate subject-verb agreement?

Well . . . that depends. (We are speaking English, after all, where there seem to be as many exceptions as there are rules, and the rules may be different tomorrow.)

Sometimes, the context determines which verb form to use. Is the focus of the sentence the unit acting in unison or the members of the unit working individually? When the unit is acting in unison, use the singular form of verbs and pronouns. When the members of the unit are acting as individuals, use the plural form of verbs and pronouns.

For example:

The couple have been [plural verb] together for four years.

The couple has [singular verb] three children.

The class waits [singular verb] for its [singular pronoun] teacher quietly. The class begin [plural verb] their [plural pronoun] homework assignments while they [plural pronoun] wait [plural verb] for their [plural pronoun] teacher.

Some collective nouns are always singular or always plural.

The mob was turning [singular verb] violent.

Her clothes were [plural verb] hanging neatly over the chair.

The police are investigating [plural verb] the case.

Items that are made of connected parts usually take a plural verb. (They are treated as singular if you precede the word with a phrase such as a pair of.)

Where are [plural verb] the binoculars?

Where is [singular verb] the pair of binoculars?

The pants look [plural] expensive.

The pair of pants looks [singular] expensive.

If you can't decide if a collective noun should be considered singular or plural, remember you are a writer. There are probably lots of other words you can use to convey the same meaning, such as using players instead of team. Or you can add the word members after the collective noun, such as jury members instead of the jury.

On the other hand, it might be counterproductive to try to find an alternate phrase that conveys more imagery than a murder of crows or a weyr of dragons.

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