Collective Nouns – Is it Its or Theirs?

I’m sure this topic has been covered before in many places, so consider this a refresher course.

What is a collective noun?

A collective noun is a noun that refers to or describes a group of people or things. It is generally singular in form, for example, family, couple, group, class, herd, company, enemy, flock, committee, squad, etc., but it may be singular or plural in meaning or usage. It may also be considered countable (family, team) or non-countable (furniture, luggage, rain, snow). In this lesson, I will deal with collective nouns that refer to people only.

Questions from the Audience

1. So it is singular in form but may be plural in meaning. Got it! Hmm…
No, wait a minute! If that’s the case, then grammar-wise, do we treat it as
singular or plural in sentences?

Well, this is English we are talking about, so the answer is obvious–it depends.

2. Argh! I hate that answer! Okay, what does it depend on?

You are not going to like the answer. It depends on what the writer or speaker is thinking in his head at the time he is writing or speaking it. In other words, it is subjective, not objective.

3. Darn! I knew you were going to say that! Okay, can you at least give me some
examples so I can better understand when I should use singular or plural?

Can do! (That I can do.)

Examples

a. The couple is/are happily married?
I would use ‘are’ because in my mind there are two people in a couple
and each person must be happy for ‘the couple’ to be considered happy.

b. The committee cast its/their vote(s)?
I would use ‘their votes’ because each individual member has his/her own vote.

c. The committee made its/their decision?
I would use ‘its’ decision because as a single body, they made a single decision.

d. Americans feel that the nation is/are going down the wrong path.
I would use ‘is’ because the nation is moving or acting as a single entity.

e. Congress met to elect its/their members.
I would use ‘its’ because it is a single body choosing its individual members.

f. Congress voted for a pay raise for itself/themselves.
I would use ‘themselves’ because Congress is not paid as a single unit.
Rather each of its individual members have a salary and receive a paycheck.
In other words, Congress is ‘paid’ as many individuals receiving paychecks.

g. The team met to elect its/their leader.
What would you use in this case? Justify your answer.

Lagniappe

1. First, I need a volunteer to tell me what the heck “lagniappe” means.

2. Second, I need a volunteer to tell me how to pronounce it
(giving me two words it rhymes with will suffice for this).

3. I interjected at least three interjections above.
What emotion or feeling does each one express?

4. I used ‘grammar-wise’ above. What does the ‘-wise’ suffix mean?
Can you give me one or two other ‘-wise’ expressions I could use?

(Hm, is otherwise actually a ‘-wise’ suffixed expression that has ‘lost’ its hyphen?)

I await some audience participation with bated breath. Hoo-ah!

5. What the heck does ‘with bated breath’ mean in the sentence above?

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