What Is a Collective Noun?

Alan Rankin

A collective noun is a word that refers to a group of animals, objects, or people. Examples include team, pair, and the word group itself. Despite including multiple items, collective nouns generally use a singular verb, as in “the team is winning.” In English, collective nouns referring to groups of animals are often colorful and unusual; for example, a group of crows is called a murder. This has led many writers and humorists to invent their own collective nouns, such as a gaggle of girls.

A flock of sea birds.
A flock of sea birds.

A noun, as most English speakers know, is a word that refers to an object, place or person. Nearly all sentences require nouns as the subject and the object — in other words that which acts and that which is acted upon. Most nouns have plural forms, and these require plural verbs, such as are and were. Collective nouns are used when referring to multiple items as a single unit; hence, they require singular verbs. When dividing the group into individual units, plural verbs again apply, even if the collective noun is still present, for example, “The members of the team were elated at their victory.”

A collective noun is a word that refers to a group of animals, objects, or people.
A collective noun is a word that refers to a group of animals, objects, or people.

Some collective nouns can be used for any purpose, such as group, pair, and collection. Others have more specific uses; for example, the collective noun herd usually refers to a group of animals. It is only used in other cases when the speaker wishes to compare a group to an animal herd. Other non-specific collective nouns for animals include pack and flock. Collective nouns that can refer to people include gang, troop, and crowd.

One well-known quirk of the English language is the existence of a specialized collective noun for each different species of animal. Many of these terms of venery, or wild game, were first used by British hunters in the 1600s. These colorful terms, such as a gaggle of geese and a convocation of eagles, have delighted many amateur and professional students of language over the years. Other examples include a charm of finches, an exaltation of larks, and the dramatic-sounding murder of crows.

This kind of collective noun is rarely used in everyday speech. It remains popular, however, because of its unusual and sometimes amusing nature. Many writers have coined their own collective nouns for objects or people based on the terms of venery. Examples include a bench of bishops, a ponder of philosophers, and a shower of meteorologists. It should be noted, however, that, unlike the terms of venery, these are not standard English and are mainly used for humorous or showy effect.

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