July 18, 2004

A terminological rant

There aren't a great many grammatical terms that have made it into (more or less) common usage, but "collective noun" is one. The collective nouns of English include: "group", "committee", "troupe", and "pride" [of lions]. Semantically, they refer to collections of individuals. Grammatically, they are are count nouns, pluralizable as: "groups", "committees", "troupes", "prides" [of lions], etc. Nevertheless, in the singular, they share some characteristics with plurals: for instance, they occur with predeterminer "all" ("all the committee", like "all the children"; cf. ??"all the child"), and they can serve as antecedents for plural pronouns ("The committee perjured themselves", like "The children perjured themselves"; cf. ??"The child perjured themselves"). We need a term that distinguishes (at least) two types of count nouns, and "collective noun" is a really wonderful name for one of them. It's not only a good label, it's a well-established one.

So it's appalling to read Bill Walsh (in his new book The Elephants of Style) referring to mass nouns as "collective nouns", and to read Bill Safire (in his "On Language" column of 7/11/04 in the New York Times Magazine, p. 16) aping Walsh in a review of The Elephants of Style. This is just wrong. Especially for people who propose to educate general readers about grammar. How could they treat grammatical terminology in this ignorantly ham-fisted fashion?

Walsh, as quoted by Safire, holds that "it's time to pull the plug and acknowledge that data is a collective noun, like information." As for the word media, Safire tells us that Walsh "holds that it is usually used by people as a collective singular" but parts company with Walsh on this one, saying that he'll "stick with media are".

What these two would-be grammar gurus are talking about here is mass nouns, not collective nouns. To refresh your memory, mass nouns in English include: "information", "rice", "mail", and "pride" (as in "much pride", with no involvement of lions). Semantically, they tend to refer to stuff rather than individuatible things (though there are well-known anomalies here). Grammatically, except in special uses they aren't comfortable with individuating determiners like "each" and "every", are comfortable with the determiner "much", and resist pluralization: *"informations", *"rices", *"mails", *"prides" (as in *"many [non-leonine] prides"), etc. This is baby-level English-structure stuff -- not something like the that-trace effect, or ergativity in verbs, say -- and very long-standard terminology.

I'm willing to believe that Walsh is simply ignorant of rudimentary terminology. He presents himself as a practical, down-to-earth professional writer sharing his experience and opinions with us, and he seems to be devising his terminology as he goes along. "Collective noun" is not such a bad label for mass nouns, since the reference of mass nouns could be viewed (at one level) as a collection of individuals: pieces of information, pieces of mail, grains of rice. Unfortunately, the label's already taken -- what, I wonder, does Walsh call real collective nouns? -- and there's another label already in use, so he's just sowing confusion with his idiosyncratic terminology. (Unless, of course, he supposes that his readers will be just like him, and won't look at other sources of information about English grammar and usage.)

Safire really has no such excuse. I'm sure he knows about the "mass"/"count" terminology. But rather than alter Walsh's usage, he repeats it, probably out of a desire not to burden his readers with technicalities of linguistics. This is an insult to the intelligence of his readers. Surely they could be expected to learn this easy-to-grasp distinction and appreciate why the standard labels are pretty good ones. (No labels are perfect.)

Shame on you, Bill Safire! Shame, shame!

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 18, 2004 02:37 PM