Today’s Twisty Tongue was inspired by this March 22 Free Press headline: Spring has Sprung in Winnipeg and so has a Herd of Mosquitoes.
That appalling headline was written by some well-paid and well-educated copy editor, although most Grade 3 children could tell the newspaper’s editors that mosquitoes do not herd.
Herd, used to denote a group, is known as a “collective noun.” Such nouns refer to groups of people, animals, or things. Collectives occur in the singular and may be accompanied by either singular or plural verbs. Plural verbs are more acceptable in British usage than in North American.
In Britain, we might hear, “The government have prorogued parliament once again.” In Canada, we’d say, “The government has prorogued parliament once again.” Both usages are correct.
The tense we employ rests on the way the group in question is viewed. Is that group a single unit or a collection of separate entities?
Here are examples of both: “I was surprised by the crowd, which was a distinguished one.” “I was surprised by the crowd who were all seated by kick-off time.”
English vocabulary boasts a number of well-known collective nouns. Let’s look at a few.
Collectives used for people: a team of players; a crowd of onlookers; an audience of music-lovers; a congregation of believers; a crew of seamen; a regiment of soldiers.
Collectives used for animal life: a pride of lions, a flock of sheep, a swarm of insects, a school of fish, a pack of wolves, and a pod of whales.
Collectives used for things: a flight of stairs, a set of dishes, a pair of mittens, a squadron of warplanes, a fleet of ships, a collection of coins, and a deck of cards.
Some collectives are fanciful, even poetic, such as: a murder of crows, a skulk of foxes, an exaltation of larks, a parliament of owls, a prickle of porcupines, and a kindle of kittens.
Several nouns in common use may not initially be recognized as collectives, for example, class, jury, committee, community, and organization.
All of the last five present prime examples of differences between British English and North American English. Probably, nouns like jury, class and committee would take plural verbs in Britain. None of them would be followed by plurals here.
Flock is Middle English, originally flok, probably from the Old Norse flokkr. We’ve used flock in English since about 1618. Herd is from the Old Teutonic herda. Swarm, originally referring only to bees, is from the Late Middle English sworm, from the Old Teutonic swormoz.
All ancient meanings are similar to today’s usage.
Collective nouns have been so-labeled since about 1707, but the use of such nouns is too old to be dated. As well, many cannot be traced to their sources.
In fairness to the Free Press, it must be noted that in addition to a swarm, we also speak of a scourge of mosquitoes. However, the collective noun herd is never correctly used in reference to insects of any kind.