Student Stumper 22: The Challenge of Identifying Collective and Aggregate Nouns

QUESTION: Why do we say “my family is” but “the police are”? Aren’t both words collective nouns?

ANSWER:  No. Both “family” and “police” refer to a unit, but we perceive the number of members in each one differently. Greenbaum and Quirk explain that “family” is a collective noun and “police” is an aggregate noun, the latter being a unit with an indefinite number of parts (1990). Other examples that make that distinction clearer are the aggregate nouns communications, media, and data. Contrast that with examples of collective nouns: committee, team, and jury. Greenbaum and Quirk identify collective nouns as “ordinarily singular” and aggregate nouns as “ordinarily plural” (1990). This is why we say “my family is” and “the police are”. Biber, Conrad, and Leech confirm that in American English collective nouns normally take the singular (2002).

Consider some other differences between collective and aggregate nouns:

  • Use of determiners. We can use indefinite articles with collective nouns but not aggregate nouns: a committee, a team, a jury, a family. (But not: a communications, a media, a data, a police.)
  • Singular and plural forms. In general, we can choose between two forms of a collective noun (team-teams, family-families), but we don’t have this choice with aggregate nouns (one police? two police?)

In my next posting, I’ll offer and idea or two for classroom practice.

For more information on this topic:

Georgia State University, Dept. of Applied Linguistics

The OWL at Purdue

References:

Biber, Conrad, and Leech. Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Pearson Education, 2002.

Greenbaum and Quirk.  A Student’s Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1990.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Richard Rose says:

    Thanks for your response and reference to your posting on collective and aggregate nouns. The World Cup announcers are treating the country names as aggregate nouns, whereas we treat them as collective nouns. They speak a native form of English but their accents tell me that they grew up in another country, perhaps England, Australia, or South Africa. Do you know if the rules of English are sometimes different in other countries?

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      As I understand, the preference for treating collective nouns as singular is something that distinguishes American English from English as it’s spoken in other countries. This is only one example of how the so-called rules can be different from one group of native speakers to another. Yes, definitely, there are differences between US and UK English that go beyond pronunciation and vocabulary.

      1. Richard Rose says:

        Thank you, Jennifer!

  2. Tim says:

    Hi, thanks allot for this post it help to clarify an issue for a class I’m teaching. I have one question however. It was my understanding that a word like “data” is neither a neither a collective noun nor an aggregate noun, but rather a mass noun (non-count noun) like “water”. Is this correct? (The reason this matters, to my thinking, is that aggregate nouns are treated as plural. So if “data” was an aggregate noun, it would seem to force us to say “The data *are* on my computer”. But I think the correct way to say it would be “The data *is* on my computer” for the same reason we say “The water *is* in my glass”.). What do you think?

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Despite my own efforts to sort all this out, I still find it confusing at times! Technically, data is a plural noun. Dictionaries list the singular form datum. But when do we ever use that? Moreover, we usually don’t recognize distinct parts, but rather the whole when we refer to data. That’s why I agree with Greenbaum and Quirk in recognizing data as a unit that’s plural in form. When explaining aggregate nouns, they also note: “With some items there is a vacillation between singular and plural; for example […] The data is/ are insufficient.” (page 99 in A Student’s Grammar of the English Language). In other words, they recognize both a singular and a plural verb with “data”.

      I think it’s tricky to compare water and data. “Water” is usually a non-count noun, but can be used in the plural as we do with rain/ rains, art/ arts, juice/ juices. A similar pattern isn’t seen with data.

      Georgia State University has also posted info on aggregate nouns. Here’s the link.

      Does that help a bit more? When I’ve taught advanced grammar in the past, I usually focused first on count v. non-count and practiced how to make non-count nouns countable (e.g. a herd of sheep). Then a second lesson practiced identifying when plural forms were needed for nouns that are usually used with a mass meaning, such as rain v. rains. The topic of collective v. aggregate nouns fits nicely into a lesson on common mistakes (use of articles and subject-verb agreement).

      1. Tim says:

        Thank you very much for your response.

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