ever heard discussions about the word Australia in sporting
contexts? I mean, debates about which of the following sorts of
cricketing statements is correct English:
are 2 for 137
is 2 for 137.
have a look at this.
doubt know the expression collective noun, applied to nouns which
refer to a group (usually of people or animals), but which are singular
in form. Common examples are these words: family, government,
committee, clergy, flock.
language sources (e.g. Pam Peters in her Cambridge Australian Style
Guide) also include under the term groups of inanimate objects in
addition to groups of living creatures.
The American Heritage
Book of English Usage; A Practical and Authoritative Guide to
Contemporary English, on the other hand, prefers the expression
mass nouns for inanimate objects. It distinguishes such words (e.g.
furniture, luggage) from collective nouns because “they cannot be
there are other mass nouns where this does not apply, such as bunch,
heap. While you can’t say a furniture or a luggage,
you can say a bunch or a heap.
then arise as to whether collective singulars take a singular or plural
verb — as in our cricket team sentence.
depends on the context. Peters writes,
choice of verb and pronoun (singular or plural) accords with the
writer’s meaning, rather than being dictated by grammar.
words, the matter boils down to this: does the writer/speaker want to
emphasise “the collective body or its individual members” (Peters)?
American Heritage Book of English Usage gives these examples:
family was united on this question.
enemy is suing for peace.
cases the reference is to the collection as a whole, whereas in the
following the reference is to the group’s individual members:
family are always fighting among themselves.
enemy were showing up in groups of three or four to turn in their
“rule” seems to apply in America and in Australia, then, but not
necessarily in Britain. According to The American Heritage Book of
British usage, collective nouns are more often treated as plurals:
government have not announced a new policy.
team are playing in the test matches next week.
Usage and Abusage, however, the New Zealand born British
lexicographer Eric Partridge took the opposing view:
collective nouns as can be used either in the singular or in the plural
. . . are singular when unity (a unit) is intended; plural, when the
idea of plurality is predominant.
good old Henry Fowler (Modern English Usage):
of multitude . . . are treated as singular or plural at discretion — &
sometimes, naturally, without discretion . . . In general it may be said
that while there is always a better & a worse in the matter, there is
seldom a right & a wrong . . .
Fowler had a go at non-agreement between noun, verb and pronoun, as in
waiter might as well serve one on a dirty plate as a journalist offer
one such untidy stuff as:
University of London Press hopes to have ready the following additions
to their series of . . .
nouns like furniture and luggage, by the way, always take
coming back to the cricketers, is it Australia is or Australia
are? On this one, opinions vary, so make up your own mind. Most
people in Australia, wrongly or rightly, use are.
about those wonderful collectives for animals, like a pride of lions
or a gaggle of geese? Do they take a singular or plural verb? The
short answer, as above, is “Depends”.
Here is a
short list of other such nouns culled quickly from various sources, a
few of which you may not have seen before. Whatever else they are, some
sure reflect great imagination. Interestingly, most are quite old, and
many are obsolete — except for their use in lists like this:
of apes (15th century)
of cats (19th century)
of foxes (18th century)
of kittens (13th century)
of larks (15th century)
of owls (1960s)
of partridges [also of grouse and ptarmigan] (15th century)
of peacocks (15th century)
of pheasants (15th century)
of quails [also of roes, larks and, of course, ladies and maidens] (15th
of [animals that go in flocks, e.g. seals, fowl, whales, ducks] (16th
rout of wolves (17th century).
old are the humorous (and sometimes derogatory) concoctions to do with
of British secret agents
of electrical engineers
[or shush] of librarians
of old guard
of used car dealers
conclude, I’ll mention the fact that a few nouns are commonly not
thought of as collectives — but they should be. Some of these are
scientific terms. An interesting example is plankton, which the OED
collective name for all the forms of floating or drifting organic life
at various depths in the ocean, or, by extension, in bodies of fresh
is, once you know this, every time you’re about to use it you have to
decide whether to use a singular or plural verb. Not to worry. From what
I’ve read, more often than not it gets a plural verb.
generally have limited or no swimming ability and are transported
through the water by currents and tides.
so, some writers correctly use it as a singular when the emphasis is on
the group as a whole:
As a human resource, plankton has only begun to be developed and
exploited. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
unless you’re a marine biologist how often are you going to say or write
this word, anyway?