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Une poignée de dollars: French Collective Nouns

A collective noun (nom collectif) is a singular noun that represents a group of objects or people. Some French examples include une série (a series), une poignée (a handful or fistful), un tas (a pile), une foule (a crowd), and, of course, un groupe (a group). Although collective nouns can stand alone in a sentence, they are often followed by a complement (a group of something). The tricky part about using collective nouns is determining whether the verb should agree with the collective noun (and be singular) or with its complement (and be plural).

The agreement all depends on which of the two (the collective or its individual parts) is being emphasized. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at two different ways of using the word poignée:

Une poignée d'humains s'est emparée d'un pouvoir qui les dépasse eux-mêmes.
A handful of people has taken over a power beyond their control.
Cap. 89-90, Actus de Quartier: Manif anti-nucléaire à Bastille

Une poignée de nationalistes saluaient la naissance tant espérée.
A handful of nationalists were greeting the much hoped-for birth.
Cap. 9, Le Journal: Un petit prince japonais

In the first example, the singular verb agrees with the collective noun (poignée) because the group of people as a whole has taken over. In the second example, the plural verb agrees with the complement (nationalistes) because the emphasis is on the individual nationalists who are giving the greeting. So if you’re talking about what a group of things does as a single entity, you use a singular verb. But if you’re talking about what the things in the group do themselves, as individuals, you use a plural verb.

Sometimes, the word preceding the collective noun can indicate whether the verb is singular or plural. If the noun is preceded by a definite article (le, la) or a demonstrative (ce, cet, cette) or possessive (mon, ton, etc.) pronoun, the verb will often agree with the collective noun and be singular:

Cet ensemble d'obstacles sera difficile à surmonter.
This group of obstacles will be difficult to overcome.

If the noun is preceded by an indefinite article (un, une), the verb will often be plural and agree with the complement:

Un ensemble de personnes marchent dans la rue.
A group of people are walking in the street.

But many times, the decision to make the verb agree with the collective noun or its complement all boils down to personal preference or the speaker’s intention. This is true of number words like une douzaine (a dozen), une quinzaine (around fifteen), and une vingtaine (around twenty), which can take either a singular or a plural verb:

Une centaine d’exilés tibétains ont tenté d’occuper l’ambassade de Chine à New Delhi
About a hundred Tibetan exiles have tried to occupy the Chinese embassy in New Delhi
Cap. 2, Le Journal: Manifestations au Tibet

Une douzaine d'huîtres coûte dix euros.
A dozen oysters costs ten euros.

You can see our lesson on words like centaine and douzaine here.

There’s no room for personal preference when it comes to the words la plupart (most), la majorité (the majority), and une quantité (a lot). These always take a plural verb:

La plupart des gens à Miami parlent l’espagnol, pour vous dire
Most people speak Spanish in Miami, you know
Cap. 22, Fred et Miami Catamarans: Fred et sa Vie à Miami

Notre équipe de traducteurs chez Yabla vous souhaite une multitude de succès! (Our translating team at Yabla wishes you a multitude of success!)

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