Collective nouns

What is a collective noun?

Put simply, it is a word that refers to a collection of items taken as a whole. Many examples are mundane (like group or collection); others can be a bit more colourful (like a congress of salamanders or murmuration of starlings).

Collective nouns can often be identified by the word endings –age and –ade. For example, words like signage and baggage have expanded on the smaller-scale concepts of sign and bag, becoming collective nouns in the process.

So far, so reasonable, but there is controversy too. The Atlantic has opened up between Britain and the US once again, this time over the issue of whether collective nouns should be treated as singular or plural.

Writers of American English are normally encouraged to stick with the singular verb: for example, Everton FC is currently top of the league, whereas a British English writer might say Everton FC are currently top. In British English, allowances are made for the figurative context, so if there is a sense of the team working together as a unit, the singular is used, whereas if team members were fighting amongst themselves, the plural would be more appropriate.

In a sporting context in British English, cities and countries, etc. are referred in the plural: for example, Germany are the hot favourites to win.

A collective noun is not the same thing as a mass noun, such as powder, which is also known as an uncountable noun, for obvious reasons. These words do not go together with numbers or other modifiers: you couldn’t buy seven powders, but instead would have to insert a vessel or measurement of some kind, like a bag, bucket or litre, depending on how much powder was involved.

Medieval hunters came up with a whole range of collective nouns for their prey, which have survived to this day in the form of veneries, many of the words sounding outlandishly poetic. The aristocrat’s intent was often to demonstrate to peasants how erudite they were and keep the lower orders in their place.

Examples of collective nouns

There are some bizarre collective nouns for different creatures (as well as professions and other classifications), and it is interesting to consider how many of them came up. A flange of baboons was made up in early 1980s by the writers for a BBC comedy sketch show, but it seems to have stuck. See if the examples below ring as true as a peal of bells.

 Collective noun Common noun
 a display of  salamanders
 a sneer of  butlers
 an embarrassment of  twitches
 a shrewdness of  apes
 a conjunction of  grammarians

See more examples of collective nouns for animals, collective nouns for people and collective nouns for things and objects.