Scientific English as a Foreign Language
Answers to Lesson of May 1, 1998
Collective Nouns

Collective nouns denote a collection of persons or things regarded as one unit. An example is a sports team--many individuals, one team. Collective nouns are difficult to use correctly because they sometimes are singular nouns, and sometimes are plural ones. And you must match the verb to the right case.

In "The orchestra was playing.", the orchestra was performing as one unit. In "The orchestra have all gone home.", the plural verb form is used because the individual members of the orchestra acted separately. "Inter-Milan beats Ajax." is in the former sense; "Inter-Milan have assaulted Ajax." is in the latter. (As long as it is individuals who have been violent, not the team as a group.)

The distinction between what is a collective noun and what isn't is often harder to establish than in the examples above. "The variety of techniques in our lab is wonderful." refers to the broad spectrum of possibliites in our lab and is singular. However, I would choose to say "A variety of techniques were employed to study the material." because the emphasis is on the multiplicity of possibilites. Grammarians might disagree with me, but I invoke the native speaker's "sounds right" rule.  :-)

Try these. Use the verb in paratheses.

1. (have) EPFL has not won the game.
2. (work) The students work very hard.
3. (work) That group works very hard.
4. (work) That group of students works very hard.
5. (work) These groups of students work very hard.
6. (have) That group has finished their lab and have gone home.
7. (be) Work schedules, delivery times, costs--this information is very useful to me.
8. (be) Work schedules, delivery times, costs--these bits of information are very useful to me.

N.B. In English, "these informations" don't (or doesn't?) exist.

..the mass starts into a million suns;
Earths round each sun with quick explosions burst,
And second planets issue from the first.

-Eramus Darwin (1731-1802)

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Created April 30, 1998, by Nancy Burnham and Fred Hutson.