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Ημερομηνία έκδοσης: Αθήνα 27 Ιουνίου 2022

“The Challenge of Teaching Collective Nouns to ESL Students”


Χανδρινός Κωνσταντίνος

Έκτακτος Επιστημονικός Συνεργάτης, Α.Ε.Ν./Α

Υποψήφιος Διδάκτωρ ΕΚΠΑ.





Many grammarians view language as a living organism consisting of different parts of which nouns are integral. Nouns may have different forms /types, which sometimes can be confusing to ESL students. This short article will focus on the type of nouns labeled as collective nouns and discuss the fundamental aspects that may be challenging to be comprehended by ESL students.




The Challenge of Teaching Collective Nouns to ESL Students


We first of all need to identify the collective nouns and the way they are used. The collective nouns are a group/type of nouns named after their ability to designate collections of individuals and include words such as family, police and Montreal.  An interesting point is made by Vicky Pagoulatos in her book, Functional Grammar, where she discusses the first complex aspect for ESL students to master. To elaborate, a collective noun requires a singular verb if the group is thought of as a unit and, on the other hand, the collective noun requires a plural verb if the individuals that compose the group are thought of and mentioned. (p.52) A good example is the sentences:


1)  This is the best team I’ve ever seen.

2) Ottawa are playing against Toronto next Sunday.


In this example the noun “team” is a collective and it conjugates a singular verb, for we assume the whole team as one group/unit. However, in the second example, the collective noun “Ottawa” takes a plural verb, for we assume the individual players that are part of the group.


In addition, Lori Morris in her book, It’s a Long Story, makes an interesting point concerning the number of collectives. She comments that the number of the collective completely depends on the speaker’s or writer’s point of view. Thus, collectives provide the speaker or the writer with the choice to manipulate them as s/he wishes. In addition, Marianne Celce in her article, “The Duality of Collective Nouns”, mentions a unique ability that only collective nouns have and can express. The speaker or writer, by using collective nouns, is able to imply two senses as s/he desires, one singular and the other collective. (p. 166)


Another important aspect that may cause some confusion to ESL students is the double power of the collective nouns. In other words, as it is mentioned in the above examples, collective nouns can be either singular or plural without changing their form like traditional nouns. This may be a problem because as Marianne Celce argues in her article if the number of the collective is restricted to “sentence level”, then those sentences that carry simple past verb forms or modal auxiliaries will not provide the reader or listener with any indication of the number of the collective.  In order to elucidate her point she uses the following examples:


 1)  The class didn’t quieten down.

2)  The government should rectify that mistake.


It appears there is a serious flaw that may jeopardize communication and may confuse ESL students even more. Nevertheless, Marianne Celce further in her article mentions that in these instances the context or an “anaphoric reference” usually will provide a solution to this problem. Discourse rarely happens in single sentences; therefore, the extensions or context of the above mentioned examples will reveal the number of the collectives:


1)  The class didn’t quieten down,they were in a bloisterous mood.

2) The government should rectify that mistake if it can. (p.164-165)


Now let’s consider the sentence: Montreal is/are having a bad season. What should it/they do about it? ESL students may have problems understanding what message these sentences attempt to transmit or whether they are grammatically correct. Interestingly, the noun “Montreal” belongs to a special group labeled as proper or “unique” collective nouns. Marianne Celce in her article argues that when a speaker or writer utilizes a singular syntactic construction, then the city is viewed as a whole and an “inanimate concept” is being expressed. On the other hand, when a plural syntactic construction is utilized, then the “individual people” that are part of the city are assumed and an “animate concept” is being expressed. (p.167) Thus, once ESL students comprehend that the singular or plural choice signals a different meaning, then they may have no further difficulty understanding the concept that a sentence with a proper collective noun assumes.


Another aspect of collectives that may cause difficulty to ESL students is the contradiction of number between the collective and the verb. Walter Hirtle in his article, “The Singular Plurality of Verb Discord in English” provides an appropriate example:


1)      How a people die. (p.47)


In this example, he says that the article “a” signifies the noun “people” as a singular, but the verb without the “-s” ending appears to be plural; therefore, there is a clear contradiction between the verb and its subject. (p.47)  How is it possible for the noun to be singular and plural at the same time?  First, we have to consider this example on the lexical level. In This sentence the writer may wish to emphasize the sense of the individuals in the group perishing one by one; therefore, the morphology of the noun has to be such in order to express unity and at the same time give emphasis to individuals that compose that particular group. The only noun type that has that dual power is the collective noun and even though on the surface it appears the number of the noun may disagree with the number of the verb, in reality, the one complements the other in order to create this unique semantic effect.


In addition, Walter Hirtle, in his article provides an even more scientific explanation of a possible concord between the verb and a collective noun. He says:


                  Because the number of the substantive and that of the noun

                  the phrase [may] arise at different moments, the possibility of each having

                  a different number is introduced and, by the same token, a ground

                  for reasoning the apparent contradiction is provided......the discord

                  arises not between verb and subject  noun phrase, but between the

                  noun phrase and its substantive. (p.51)


To conclude, there is a plethora of aspects of the collective nouns that may be difficult to be understood not only by ESL students but also by native speakers. Nevertheless, collective nouns are among the more colorful contributors to the English language and possess unique abilities that may be useful when a speaker or writer wishes to express complex notions and/or ideas.




Celce, Marianne. “The Duality of Collective Nouns”. English Language Teaching.

            V.25, No.2, p.164-169, 1970.


Hirtle, H. Walter. “The Singular Plurality of Verb Discord in English”. Canadian Journal

            of Linguistics. V.27,  No.1, p.47-54,1982.


Morris, Lori. It’s a Long Story. Unpublished material.


Pagoulatou-Vlachou, Vicky. Functional Grammar. Athens: Express Publishing, 1986.


Hirlte, H. Walter. Number and Inner Space: A Study of Grammatical Number in English. Quebec: Les Presses de l’ Universite Laval, 1982.


Michael, Ian. English Grammatical Categories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.


Schwarzschild, Roger. Pluralities. The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996.


Wickens, A. Mark. Grammatical Number in English Nouns. Philadelphia: John      Benjamin’s Publishing Company, 1992.



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