Blog Post

Troublesome agreement with collective nouns

Last week, my 6-year-old son brought home a short reader from the Flying Start to Literacy series. It was an excellent book about Driver Ants, which left us both very thankful that we don’t have Driver Ants in Australia. It even included a Glossary.

But the definition of ‘habitat’ got me all tied up about the difficulties of creating agreement when using collective nouns.

The book says: ‘Habitat: the place in which a group of animals live and find food’.

I’d much prefer to write ‘a group of animals lives and finds food’ because, to me, a group is singular – and the agreement of ‘live’ and ‘find’ needs to rest with ‘group’ not ‘animals’. The singularity of ‘group’ seems to be particularly reinforced by the use of ‘a’ before it.

‘Group’ is one of those collective nouns that can be either singular or plural. The most common advice is to be guided by the meaning of the sentence.

I recognise that English speakers comfortably sacrifice agreement in number between sentences, but we usually try hard to maintain agreement within a sentence. We’d be happy to write: ‘A group of animals arrives. It includes dogs, cats, and elephants. They ….’ … making the switch to plural when we start to refer to the individuals and not the group.

I’m trying to think of another example where it would be OK to write ‘a [collective noun] live and find something’ … and so far I can’t.

My usual advice to writers would be to write themselves out of the problem by changing the sentence. In this case, that might be easier said than done.