Collective noun

Not to be confused with Mass noun, Collective number, or Collective numeral.

In linguistics, a collective noun is a word which refers to a collection of things taken as a whole. Most collective nouns in everyday speech are mundane and do not identify just one specific kind, such as the word "group," which may apply to "people" in the phrase "a group of people" but may also correctly refer to "dogs," in the phrase "a group of dogs." Other collective nouns are specific to one kind, especially terms of venery, which are words for specific groups of animals. For example, "pride" as a term of venery always refers to lions, never to dogs or cows.

Morphological derivation accounts for many collective words. Because derivation is a slower and less productive word formation process than the more overtly syntactical morphological methods, there are fewer collectives formed this way. As with all derived words, derivational collectives often differ semantically from the original words, acquiring new connotations and even new denotations.

The English endings -age and -ade often signify a collective. Sometimes, the relationship is easily recognizable: baggage, drainage, blockade. However, even though the etymology is plain to see, the derived words take on a distinct meaning. This is a productive ending, as evidenced in the recent coin, "signage".

German uses the prefix ge- to create collectives. The root word often undergoes umlaut and suffixation as well as receiving the ge- prefix. Nearly all nouns created in that way are of neuter gender:

Dutch has a similar pattern but sometimes uses the (unproductive) circumfix ge- -te:[1]

The following Swedish example has different words in the collective form and in the individual form:

Esperanto uses the collective suffix -ar to produce a large number of derived words:

Metonymic merging of grammatical number

Main articles: Synesis and Plurale tantum

Two good examples of collective nouns are "team" and "government", which are both words referring to groups of (usually) people. Both "team" and "government" are count nouns. (Consider: "one team", "two teams", "most teams"; "one government", "two governments", "many governments"). However, confusion often stems from the fact that plural verb forms are often used in British English with the singular forms of these count nouns (for example: "The team have finished the project."). Conversely, in the English language as a whole, singular verb forms can often be used with nouns ending in "-s" that were once considered plural (for example: "Physics is my favorite academic subject"). This apparent "number mismatch" is actually a quite natural and logical feature of human language, and its mechanism is a subtle metonymic shift in the thoughts underlying the words.

In British English, it is generally accepted that collective nouns can take either singular or plural verb forms depending on the context and the metonymic shift that it implies. For example, "the team is in the dressing room" (formal agreement) refers to the team as an ensemble, while "the team are fighting among themselves" (notional agreement) refers to the team as individuals. That is also British English practice with names of countries and cities in sports contexts; for example, "Germany have won the competition.", "Madrid have lost three consecutive matches.", etc.

In American English, collective nouns almost invariably take singular verb forms (formal agreement). In cases that a metonymic shift would be otherwise revealed nearby, the whole sentence may be recast to avoid the metonymy. (For example, "The team are fighting among themselves" may become "the team members are fighting among themselves" or simply "The team is fighting.") See Comparison of American and British English - Formal and notional agreement.

A good example of such a metonymic shift in the singular-to-plural direction (which, generally, occurs only in British English) is the following sentence: "The team have finished the project." In that sentence, the underlying thought is of the individual members of the team working together to finish the project. Their accomplishment is collective, and the emphasis is not on their individual identities, but they are still discrete individuals; the word choice "team have" manages to convey both their collective and discrete identities simultaneously. A good example of such a metonymic shift in the plural-to-singular direction is the following sentence: "Mathematics is my favorite academic subject." The word "mathematics" may have originally been plural in concept, referring to mathematic endeavors, but metonymic shift (the shift in concept from "the endeavors" to "the whole set of endeavors") produced the usage of "mathematics" as a singular entity taking singular verb forms. (A true mass-noun sense of "mathematics" followed naturally.)

Nominally singular pronouns can be collective nouns taking plural verbs, according to the same rules that apply to other collective nouns. For example, it is correct usage in both British English and American English usage to say: "None are so fallible as those who are sure they're right." In that case, the plural verb is used because the context for "none" suggests more than one thing or person.[2]

Terms of venery (words for groups of animals)

The tradition of using "terms of venery" or "nouns of assembly," collective nouns that are specific to certain kinds of animals, stems from an English hunting tradition of the Late Middle Ages. The fashion of a consciously developed hunting language came to England from France. It was marked by an extensive proliferation of specialist vocabulary, applying different names to the same feature in different animals. The elements can be shown to have already been part of French and English hunting terminology by the beginning of the 14th century. In the course of the 14th century, it became a courtly fashion to extend the vocabulary, and by the 15th century, the tendency had reached exaggerated proportions.

The Venerie of Twiti (early 14th century) distinguished three types of droppings of animals, and three different terms for herds of animals. Gaston Phoebus (14th century) had five terms for droppings of animals, which were extended to seven in the Master of the Game (early 15th century). The focus on collective terms for groups of animals emerged in the later 15th century. Thus, a list of collective nouns in Egerton MS 1995, dated to c. 1452 under the heading of termis of venery &c., extends to 70 items,[3] and the list in the Book of Saint Albans (1486) runs to 165 items, many of which, even though introduced by the compaynys of beestys and fowlys, relate not to venery but to human groups and professions and are clearly humorous, such as a Doctryne of doctoris, a Sentence of Juges, a Fightyng of beggers, an uncredibilite of Cocoldis, a Melody of harpers, a Gagle of women, a Disworship of Scottis etc.[4][5]

The Book of Saint Albans became very popular during the 16th century and was reprinted frequently. Gervase Markham edited and commented on the list in his The Gentleman's Academic, in 1595. The book's popularity had the effect of perpetuating many of these terms as part of the Standard English lexicon even if they have long ceased to have any practical application.[6]

Even in their original context of medieval venery, the terms were of the nature of kennings, intended as a mark of erudition of the gentlemen able to use them correctly rather than for practical communication. The popularity of the terms in the modern period has resulted in the addition of numerous lighthearted, humorous or facetious[7] collective nouns.

See also

Look up the appendix of collective nouns in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Linguistics concepts


  1. Booij, Geert (2002). The Morphology of Dutch. Oxford University Press.
  2. Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (4th ed., 2000), p. 10.
  3. David Dalby, Lexicon of the Mediaeval German Hunt: A Lexicon of Middle High German Terms (1050-1500), Associated with the Chase, Hunting with Bows, Falconry, Trapping and Fowling, Walter de Gruyter, 1965, ISBN 978-3-11-081860-4, p. xli.
  4. 1901 facsimile reprint, E. Stock, London (pp. 115-117).
  5. Transactions of the Philological Society Volume 26, Issue 3, pages 79–175, August 1909
  6. Todd, Loreto; Hancock, Ian (1986). International English Usage. Psychology Press. pp. 133–134. ISBN 0-415-05102-9. Retrieved 2011-04-04.
  7. Harris, Theodore L.; Hodges, Richard E. (1995). The Literacy Dictionary. International Reading Association. p. 271. ISBN 0-87207-138-3.

Further reading

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