Saturday, August 04, 2012

A herd of moose, a bevy of quail

On my post noting that Moose were Moose, though Elks were Elks Kathie commented:
"Moose" can be plural as well as singular. Ditto for "sheep," "deer," "fish," "caribou"/"reindeer" -- heck, even "elk"! I shall defer to your superior linguistic training, that you might expound further on such collective (defective?) nouns?
So I shall. Why not? In this post I explained defective nouns and why these aren't, and what they are (zero-plural nouns). In this one, I'll briefly discuss collective nouns, which they also aren't.

A collective noun is the name of a number (or collection) of people or things taken together and spoken of as one whole. These range from absolutely mundane, non-specialized, and available for anything (a group, a lot) to somewhat more specialized (a herd, a flock, a family, a team, a government) to single-use collectives such as pride or exaltation. Of these latter, some are old, some more recent and not perhaps authentically used by hunters, and some are facetious. The whole concept of "terms of venery" has always lent itself to playfulness, by the way; the 1486 Book of Saint Albans included a Doctryne of doctoris, a Sentence of Juges, an uncredibilite of Cocoldis, and a Disworship of Scottis.

Collective nouns can be thought of as collections (duh) but also as units of their own. So they can be considered singular (as they are in the US: the team is, the government says) or plural (as they are in the UK (my family are, the government say). But they have plural forms - two teams, both governments, all the families, many herds, several flocks.

Note that this is not the same thing as a mass noun. Mass nouns denote things that cannot be broken into bits that can be counted, any amount of which is an undifferentiated, well, mass or lump or blob. (Note that like gender this isn't necessarily a natural concept: a handful of wheat or sand clearly has bits in it. It's a category of word.) Classic examples are wheat, snow, sand, water, grass, and wine. These nouns may have plurals (the wheats of classical antiquity, the snows of yesteryear, the sands of Iwo Jima, the waters of Babylon, the grasses of Ireland, the wines of France) but these plurals (like the -s plurals of zero-plural nouns such as fishes) refer to more than one instance of the noun - that is, more than one snowfall or kind of wheat, not more than one snowflake or grain. Generally, to speak of the units that make up the mass, you have to use a counter - a grain of wheat, a flake of snow, a grain of sand, a drop of water, a blade of grass, a drop/glass of wine. By the way, a couple of English mass nouns - pease and cherise - which happened to have -s sounds at their ends have been regularized into the count nouns pea and cherry, the latter undoubtedly helped by berry.

Note that cattle or measles, which I mentioned in my first post as "defective" for having no singular, aren't mass nouns. Yes, you need a counter (head of cattle, case of measles) but mass nouns take singular verbs (the snow is covering the roof, wheat is tasty) and have plural forms. There aren't cattles and measleses to talk about different breeds or strains.

So words like moose, deer, or fish aren't collective or mass or defective nouns. They're just irregular. (And that makes them fascinating!)

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