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I’m not with Them: How to Handle Collective Nouns

Often, it is easy to spot the plural in a sentence: Our online courses can help improve your grammar skills. Sometimes, however, business writers are faced with collective nouns and confusion on how to use proper grammar around those nouns.

Verb Agreement

Selecting the verb for a collective noun, or a phrase including a collective noun, can confuse some of the best business writers. Examples are: a herd of cows, hive of bees, litter of puppies or a set of skills. Many writers make the mistake of spotting the plural in the sentence (cows, bees, puppies or skills) and assigning a plural verb (for example, “a hive of bees have moved into our building eaves.” But, use the word of as a clue that the plural words, like bees, describe the subject before them (hive). It’s like saying a yellow bee—these words are describers, not subjects of the sentence. It should read “A hive of bees has moved into our building eaves.”

Collective Proper Nouns

Other words describe a collective unit and take a plural form. The “Seattle Mariners” obviously remains plural because the team has named it as a plural. But we also should assume that the Orlando Magic constitute a group, and therefore we say “The Orlando Magic are coming to town in November to face the Super Sonics.”

Other collective nouns are a little trickier. One that often causes problems is the word “couple.” By definition, the word means “two people.” But I saw a headline the other day reading: “New Jersey couple give birth to twins.”

Regardless of the verb agreement, only one person in the couple actually gave birth. So, the rule for couple is this: When it clearly refers to two people, take the plural form: The couple were married Saturday. If referring to them as a single unit, use the singular verb: “Each couple on the cruise was awarded one free meal.” In our news headline above, rewrite the sentence so it can make sense if the collectiveness of the noun is unclear: “New Jersey couple leaves hospital with twin babies.” (They are a unit, so the singular verb “leaves” is correct.)

Spotting subjects and selecting verbs for collective nouns can get confusing. But in our online courses like Grammar That Counts!, we help you practice until this kind of business writing decision become easier. See our webinars page to learn more or give us a call at (425)-485-3221.

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