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:
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.