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Collective Nouns‏‎ in English Grammar

A flock of seagullsA Collective Noun is a noun used to describe a group of objects (things, people, etc).

For example, when we talk about collections of people we can use words like:

a group of men
a gang of teenagers
a mob of rioters
a squad of soldiers

Each of the highlighted words is a collective noun.

There are hundreds of collective nouns in English. Some common ones include:

a fleet of ships
a bunch of bananas
a clutch of eggs
a flock of seagulls

There are also a huge amount of collective nouns relating to animals. See below for more on this.

The Grammar of Collective Nouns

In one sense collective nouns act as a single unit and take a singular verb:

The fleet of ships is coming into view.

The squad is ready to attack, Sir!

But then again, if the fleet and the squad attack and then retreat in disarray you might say:

The fleet are all over the place.

The squad are nowhere to be seen.

So before choosing the whether the verb is singular or plural, you have to decide whether the group is acting together or as individuals.

For more on this, see the link on subject-verb agreement below.

Collective Nouns and Animals

In English there are special terms for collections of animals. This dates back to the great hunting tradition of England from the Middle Ages onwards.

a herd of cows
a shoal of fish
a flight of swallows
a pack of wolves
a colony of ants

and so on. There are literally hundreds of them covering almost every group of animals you can imagine and these words are often evocative and poetic:

a gulp of cormorants
a doylt of swine
a fall of woodcocks
a murmuration of starlings

However, they are not really used much in everyday English and whilst they might be fun to mention to your EFL students, the chances are that they will never use any but the most common ones. When was the last time you ever talked about…

a murder of crows
a flick of hares
a mute of hounds
a convocation of eagles
a kindle of kittens
a fesnyng of ferrets

Exactly. So in the TEFL class just stick to the very common; in fact, it’s probably not useful to mention collective nouns at all until they appear and need to be dealt with.

Are These Real Collective Nouns?

Of course we can have fun with collective nouns and with the right advanced class it can be a laugh to see what kind of examples they can come up with.

a blush of coquettes
a helix of geneticists
a crossing of zebras
a hack of smokers
a sprig of vegetarians
an ascendance of larks

a chalking of teachers
a flunking of students
a parsing of grammarians

Useful Links

Subject-Verb Agreement‏‎ in English Grammar – whether to use singular or plural verbs with a noun

The Collective Noun Page – a huge list of amusing collective nouns

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