Collective nouns are words that, although treated as singular, describe a group of people, places, things, or ideas. A wide variety of such words exist, but not all of them can be used in every context. The classic example is collective nouns for people. Some collective nouns for people are general in nature, meaning that they can describe almost any collection of people. Others are limited by number, by the sort of people they describe or by other variables.
First and foremost, general collective nouns are the words you need if you're looking to describe a group of people with a single term. These words do have slightly different connotations but can generally be safe to use for most groups of people. For example, you could refer to a team of athletes practicing or a team of painters working on your house. Consider several examples, along with sample sentences.
- association - I am happy to be part of the neighborhood association.
- band - These neighborhood kids are a band of hooligans.
- body - The student body collected donations for a homeless shelter.
- bunch - I have a bunch of cousins.
- class - The senior class is putting on a show for the alumni.
- circle - What a joy to have such a supportive circle of coworkers.
- cohort - This cohort of freshmen seems to be doing better in school than last year's group.
- crowd - The crowd at last night's concert was a bit overwhelming.
- gang - It's great to have a gang of really trustworthy friends.
- group - I'm proud to be included in the group of finalists.
- lot - They are all irritating me; the whole lot of them.
- party - We need a table for a party of six.
- posse - You three girls are my posse.
- set - I have a set of quadruplets for siblings.
- society - Polite society dictates sending thank you notes for wedding gifts.
- squad - I'm so excited to be part of the cheerleading squad.
- staff - Our primary equipment vendor had lunch delivered to the staff.
- team - I love being part of a strong team at work.
- troop - Let's take the whole troop to the park tomorrow.
- tribe - My work tribe is a joy to spend time with.
Some collective nouns are more specific than the general examples above. These words refer to particular people or groups that have gathered for a specific reason. The examples of this type of collective noun for people include context examples to help illustrate how they can be used.
- alumni - The word alumni is a collective noun that refers to the entire group of people who previously attended a particular school. Interestingly, if you are speaking of just one previous student, that person would be described as an alumnus. Some companies also refer to former employees as alumni.
- battalion - Within the United States armed services, the word battalion refers to a tactical unit composed of a specific group of infantry personnel organized under the leadership of a high-ranking military official.
- board - As a collective noun, the word board refers to a group of people that possess authority within a particular organization. This could refer to an advisory board, a board of investors, a board of directors, or a board of trustees.
- choir - A group of singers who perform together for religious services is typically referred to as a choir. This term is usually used for singers who perform together for a particular church, though cross-congregational choirs are sometimes organized.
- chorus - The word chorus is a collective noun that can be used in a few ways. It can be described as the group of background singers and/or dancers in a musical. Groups of high school or college students who perform together on behalf of the school are also referred to as a chorus.
- company - The collective noun company is often used to refer to a group of professional dancers who performs together for a specific organization, such as the company of the American Ballet Theatre.
- congregation - The word congregation is used to refer to those who gather together to worship or who are members of a particular church. This word began as a general term to refer to any gathering and has grown more specific, whereas most collective nouns begin as specific terms and gradually become more general.
- crew - The word crew is most commonly used to describe the group of people who work on a sailing vessel, such as a military ship, luxury yacht, oil tanker, or cruise ship. It can also be used to refer to a group of people working on a project, such as a crew of carpenters who work together to build a house.
- den - When used to refer to people, den can be a collective noun for a group of thieves who hang out or hide out together. Since this word usually refers to an animal's lair, it makes sense that the term would also be used in the context of a hideout, which is a type of lair.
- force - The word force is often used to refer to the entirety of a law enforcement agency. For example, every city has its own police force.
- mob - As a collective noun, the word mob usually refers to an unruly or out of control group of people, such as a mob of angry rioters. The word mob is a pejorative term, implying that a group is chaotic or dangerous. It could refer to anything from unruly kids to an armed uprising, with unrest being the common defining factor.
- slate - When a list of people who are running for office is finalized, that list is described as a slate of candidates. This collective noun refers to the list of candidates who are seeking election. The winner will be selected after the slate is voted on.
- squadron - In the U.S. military, the word squadron describes a group of vessels, such as ships or aircraft, that are part of a group operating under the command of a particular senior-ranking military officer.
- unit - The word unit is a collective noun often used to refer to a group of soldiers that work together as an intact team. It can also refer to a specific group within law enforcement, such as the vice unit within a police force.
The collective nouns above are commonly used in everyday communication as well as literature and other types of writing. There are some other interesting collective nouns that you might want to consider when you're looking to use less common terminology.
- flight - A group of dancers is sometimes referred to as a flight of dancers. This is particularly appropriate for dancers who perform impressive, graceful leaps, such as ballet dancers. This term is likely commonly known in dance circles, but less likely to be recognized elsewhere.
- troupe - A group of stage performers is sometimes referred to as a troupe of dancers or a troupe of actors. It's usually used to indicate an intact group performs together in shows, parades or other events. It's probably best to reserve this term when your intended audience is in the know about performing on stage.
- coven - The phrase coven of witches is used to describe a group of witches who regularly gather together. It's a good one to use with those who are interested in witchcraft or if you're writing a fantasy novel. Or, if you dislike your sister's friends and are looking for a way to irritate them, you could refer to them as a coven.
- bevy - The collective noun bevy is most commonly used to refer to game birds like quail, but it is sometimes used to describe a group of beautiful women. The phrase bevy of beauties is a bit outdated, though.
- glitter - While some collective nouns for groups of people in the military are commonly used, not many people are likely to know that a group of military generals can be referred to as a glitter of generals. This is due to the metal stars that signify their elevated rank.
Be sure to consider the audience when using less common collective nouns. If you use a term that's a bit too obscure, those with whom you seek to communicate may not understand your meaning. Or, they might think you're not using proper terminology.
Collective nouns can provide an opportunity for wordsmiths to exercise their sense of humor. If you're doing some creative writing, you might want to take a bit of license and use some truly creative collective nouns for people. Why not flex your figurative language muscles and use a truly original (though unofficial) collective noun.
- conflagration - The word conflagration refers to a destructive fire. Since arsonists deliberately light things on fire to cause damage, consider referring to a group of them as a conflagration of arsonists.
- conjunction - What do you call a group of grammar professionals who come together in a group? Why not a conjunction of grammarians? That could be a cute pun/joke to liven up your writing!
- quiz - Are you writing a creative story about teachers or crafting a novel with an educational setting? If you're looking for a creative collective noun, consider referring to the educators as a quiz of teachers. After all, teachers are certainly known for giving quizzes!
- sprig - What do vegetarians eat? Vegetables. Many vegetable plants look like sprigs as they are growing. Some, like certain kinds of leafy greens, even look like springs when they are consumed. So, why not tell a story about a spring of vegetarians?
- wheeze - Are you crafting a story about a group of people who are trying to get in shape, but aren't there yet? If the characters gather to run as part of their fitness routine, readers might be amused if you refer to them as a wheeze of joggers.
- wiggle - Maybe your story includes a convention of Elvis impersonators. What's a good collective noun for people who make a living mimicking the moves of Elvis Presley? A wiggle of Elvis impersonators sounds about right.
- attitude - Are you writing a short story about difficult teenagers? Are you searching for a unique way to refer to them collectively? Readers will probably figure out what you mean immediately if you describe them as an attitude of teenagers.
- illusion - With magicians, now you see them and now you don't. Who even knows how many are in the group? They could disappear at any time, so maybe refer to the group accordingly. An illusion of magicians seems like apt terminology.
Did you find just the right collective noun for people in the extensive lists above? Don't stop here. For even more collective nouns and their often glorious oddness, take a look at a collection of collective nouns for animals (a group of cats is a clowder!). Of course, words are still words, they can be tricky. Collective nouns, in particular, can pose challenging grammatical questions of number and case. Review this guide to collective nouns to be sure you've mastered how to use this type of word.