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01/18/2018

American vs. British Usage

It’s worth mentioning that Americans and British distinguish collective nouns in different ways. Americans tend to treat collective nouns as single units, so it is more common to use the singular verb unless you are definitely talking about individuals. So in America you would be more likely to hear “The faculty is meeting today” than “The faculty are meeting today.” In British usage, however, is the opposite; it’s more common to use the plural verb. In fact, some sentences that are perfectly correct in Britain would be considered incorrect in America.

Institutions and Animate vs. Inanimate Nouns

Firstly, it is quite obvious, that institution names, such as the United States, the House of Lords, and Congress, tend to use singular verbs. This is probably because we see these institutions as units, as a whole; we do not think of the members as individuals. So you would most likely say, “Congress is meeting today.”, but if you want to emphasize the individuals in Congress, on the other hand, you can say, “The members of Congress are meeting today.”

Metonymic merging of grammatical number

I would like to begin with two good examples of collective nouns such as “team” and “government”, which are both words referring to groups of people. Both “team” and “government” are count nouns. (We can observe it considering the following examples: “one team”, “two teams”, “most teams”; the same situation with the word “government”: “one government”, “two governments”, “many governments”). However, confusion often occurs with 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 evident “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, as I’ve already mentioned, 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” refers to the team as a group, a coherence, while “the team are fighting among themselves” refers to the team as individuals (separate members). This 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 permanently take singular verb forms. In cases where a metonymic shift would be otherwise disclosed, the whole sentence may be remade 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.”)

Another good example of such a metonymic shift in the singular-to-plural direction 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 implementation is collective, and the emphasis is not on their individual personalities, yet they are at the same time still separated individuals; the word choice “team have” manages to convey both their collective and separate identities simultaneously. A similar example of such a metonymic shift in the plural-to-singular direction is the following sentence: “Statistics is a branch of Mathematics.” The word “statistics”, may be plural in concept, referring to a piece of information, but metonymic shift—that is, the shift in concept from “the information” to “the subject”—produced the usage of “statistics” as a singular entity taking singular verb forms.

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—occurs from an English hunting tradition of the Late Middle Ages. The fashion of a consciously developed hunting language came to England from France. It is marked by an extensive range of specialist vocabulary, applying different names to the same feature in different animals. These 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 fashion to extend the vocabulary, and by the 15th century, this 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 later (early 15th century). The focus on collective terms for groups of animals emerges in the later 15th century. Thus, a list of collective nouns in Egerton MS 1995, dated to c. 1452 under the heading of terms of venery extends to 70 items, and the list in the Book of Saint Albans (1486) runs to 165 items.

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 though they have long ceased to have any practical application. 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 these terms in the early modern and modern period has resulted in the addition of numerous light-hearted, humorous or “facetious” collective nouns.

The terms of venery range from the beautiful and evocative (an exaltation of larks) – to the amusing (a cartload of monkeys). Here I would like to illustrate some examples: a Bloat of Hippopotamuses, a dazzle of zebras, a haul of fish, an army of ants.

The list of examples of collective nouns

Now, I’d like to draw your attention to the list of examples of collective nouns according to the groups:

These collective nouns are commonly used under the category of people.

  • A class of students.
  • An army of soldiers.
  • A choir of singers.
  • A crew of sailors.
  • A band of musicians.
  • A bunch of crooks.
  • A crowd of people/spectators.
  • A gang of thieves.
  • A group of dancers.
  • A team of players.
  • A troupe of artists/dancers.
  • A pack of thieves.
  • A staff of employees.
  • A regiment of soldiers.
  • A tribe of natives.
  • An audience of listeners.
  • A panel of experts.
  • A gang of labourers.
  • A flock of tourists.
  • A board of directors.
  • The following collective nouns are used for animals.
  • A catch of fish.
  • An army of ants.
  • A flight of birds.
  • A flock of birds.
  • A haul of fish.
  • A flock of sheep.
  • A herd of deer/cattle/elephants/goats/buffaloes.
  • A hive of bees.
  • A litter of cubs.
  • A host of sparrows.
  • A team of horses.
  • A troop of lions.
  • A pack of wolves.
  • A litter of puppies/kittens.
  • A swarm of bees/ants/rats/flies.
  • A team of horses/ducks/oxen.
  • A kennel of dogs.
  • A pack of hounds.
  • The following collective nouns are used for things.
  • A group of islands.
  • A galaxy of stars.
  • A wad of notes.
  • A fleet of ships.
  • A hedge of bushes.
  • A pack of cards.
  • A pair of shoes.
  • A bouquet of flowers
  • A bunch of keys.
  • A chest of drawers.
  • A pack of lies.

Collective nouns are endless and these are just a list of those used more often. As you continue to work on improving your English, you will stumble across many more.

 

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