Individual, collective and compound nouns in Spanish

Introduction

As well as being countable or uncountable, nouns can also be individual, collective or compound.

Example

Estimados pasajeros, les habla el capitán.

En breves minutos iniciaremos el despegue, así que abróchense los cinturones y desconecten los equipos electrónicos.

Los chalecos salvavidas están debajo de sus asientos.

En nuestro destino llueve a cántaros, así que espero que hayan metido el paraguas en la maleta.

En nombre de la tripulación, les deseo un buen vuelo.

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What is an individual noun?

Individual nouns (sustantivos individuales) refer to single entities that can be divided into units. They can be used in the singular and the plural.

Example:
Casi todos los pasajeros están sentados.Nearly all the passengers are sitting down.
Hay un pasajero en el baño.There is a passenger in the bathroom.

Learn more about the rules for forming the plural of Spanish nouns.

What is a collective noun?

Collective nouns (sustantivos colectivos) refer to groups of people or things that share a common defining characteristic. Collective nouns are used in the singular because they refer to the group as a single unit. Some of these nouns can be used in the plural when they refer to several groups of the same type.

Examples:
En nombre de la tripulación, les deseo un buen vuelo.On behalf of the crew, I’d like to wish you a pleasant flight.
Las orquestas de Londres, Berlín y Nueva York están de gira por Latinoamérica.The orchestras of London, Berlin and New York are on tour in Latin America.

Collective nouns that keep the same root

Collective nouns usually keep the root of the individual nouns from which they stem, i.e. the nouns that refer to the separate elements within the group.

Examples:
tripulantes → la tripulacióncrew members → the crew
alumnos → el alumnadostudents → the student body
profesores → el profesoradoteachers → faculty
cubiertos → la cuberteríapiece of cutlery → cutlery
manteles → la manteleríatable cloth → table linens
clientes → la clientelaclients → clientele

Collective nouns with a different form

In some cases, the collective noun is very different to the individual noun it refers to. The collective nouns below that are marked with an asterisk (*) cannot be used in the plural in Spanish.

Examples:
personas → la gente*, la muchedumbre*person(s) → people, crowd
músicos → la orquestamusicians → orchestra
platos + vasos + fuentes + tazas → la vajillaplates, glasses, platters, cups → dinner service
letras → el abecedario*letters → the alphabet
palabras → el vocabulariowords → vocabulary
pelos → el cabellohairs → hair
estrellas → la constelaciónstars → constellation
islas → el archipiélagoislands → archipelago
ovejas → el rebañosheep → flock
peces → el bancofish → shoal
perros → la jauríadogs → pack
aves → la bandadabirds → flock
cerdos → la piarapigs → herd
abejas → el enjambrebees → swarm/hive
actores → el repartoactors → cast
animales → la fauna*animals → fauna
plantas → la flora*plants → flora
barcos → la flotaboats → fleet

Feminine collective nouns

Some collective nouns are made with the feminine singular form of the corresponding individual noun.

Examples:
bancos → la banca*banks → banking
leños → la leña*logs → firewood
frutos → la fruta*fruits → fruit

What is a compound noun?

Compound nouns (sustantivos compuestos) are formed with two or more words. They have the following characteristics:

  • They are written together as one word without a space in the middle.
    Example:
    Espero que hayan metido el paraguas en la maleta.I hope you have packed your umbrellas in your suitcases!
  • Although they may contain a feminine noun, the resulting compound noun is generally masculine.
    Example:
    Los chalecos salvavidas están debajo de sus asientos.The life jackets are underneath your seats.
  • When they refer to a person they can be used with the feminine article.
    Example:
    el guardaespaldas / la guardaespaldas(male) bodyguard/(female) bodyguard
  • Many compound nouns end in -s, but they are all singular nouns.
    Example:
    el paraguasthe umbrella

verb + noun

The majority of compound nouns are a combination of a verb and a noun. The third person singular of the verb in the present indicative is combined with a plural noun.

Examples:
abrir + la carta → el abrecartasopen + letter → letter opener
abrir + la lata → el abrelatasopen + can → can opener
cascar + la nuez → el cascanuecescrack + nut → nutcracker
cazar + la fortuna → el/la cazafortunashunt + fortune → golddigger
cazar + la recompensa → el/la cazarrecompensashunt + bounty → bountyhunter
cortar + el fuego → el cortafuegoscut off + fire → fire break
contar + la gota → el cuentagotascount + drop → dropper
guardar + la espalda → el/la guardaespaldasguard + back → bodyguard
guardar + el barro → el guardabarrosguard + mud → mudguard
limpiar + la bota → el/la limpiabotasclean + boots → shoeshiner
para + la brisa → el parabrisasstop + breeze → windscreen
limpiar + parar + la brisa → limpiaparabrisasclean + stop + breeze → windscreen wiper
parar + el agua → el paraguasstop + water → umbrella
parar + el rayo → el pararrayosstop + lightning → lightning rod
pisar + el papel → el pisapapelesstep on + paper → paperweight
portar + la mina → el portaminascarry + lead → mechanical pencil
portar + el retrato → el portarretratoscarry + portrait → picture frame
portar + el lápiz → el portalápicescarry + pencil → pencil holder
posar + el vaso → el posavasosplace + glass → coaster
quitar + la nieve → el quitanievestake away + snow → snowplough
romper + la cabeza → el rompecabezasbreak + head → (jigsaw) puzzle
sacar + la punta → el sacapuntastake + point → (pencil) sharpener
salvar + la vida → el salvavidassave + life → lifejacket

There are some exceptions that contain singular nouns: parasol, quitasol, cortacésped.parasol, lawnmower, pasatiempospend + time → hobby.

Other combinations

There are also compound nouns that are formed with other types of words:

Examples:
el anteojostelescope
el ciempiéscentipede
the n from cien changes to an m before the p
el mediodíamidday
la medianochemidnight