the safirean collective

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Tue Jul 13 01:31:16 UTC 2004

is it too much to ask that bill safire get it together on the
terminology front?  i mean, it's not like there are a great many
grammatical terms that have made it into (more or less) common usage,
but "collective noun" is one, and safire (in his sunday 7/11/04 column)
just transmits bill walsh's misuse of this term for "mass noun":
[quotation from walsh] "acknowledge that _data_ is a collective noun,
like _information_"; [quotation from safire, paraphrasing walsh]
"[Walsh] holds that ["media"] is usually used by people as a collective

collective nouns include: group, committee, troupe, pride [of lions],
etc.  grammatically, these are are count nouns, pluralizable as:
groups, committees, troupes, prides [of lions], etc.

mass nouns include: information, rice, hair 'head of hair', pride (as
in "much pride"), etc.  grammatically, these are not pluralizable
except in special uses: *informations, *rices, *hairs 'heads of hair',
*prides (as in "many prides").

this is baby-level english-structure stuff, and *very* long-standing

why do people (like walsh and safire) who propose to treat the details
of english usage so meticulously, carefully distinguishing between one
kind of locution and another, treat grammatical terminology in this
ignorantly ham-fisted fashion?

arnold (zwicky at

[note: since i am calling people out on errors here, let me say that if
there are typos in the above message -- lord knows i've tried to catch
them, but i am fallible -- i should note that i do all my own research,
type every character that comes out under my name (except material
marked as coming from other sources), here and everywhere else, and
have a largely nonfunctioning right ulnar nerve, which means a
significantly nonfunctional right hand, so that this typing is perilous
and fallible.  i say this to protect myself from people who might
attack me by pointing out *my* errors: "why, zwicky can't even spell
'ignorantly'!" (it was "ignoratly" the first time around, and the whole
message was littered with extra characters accidentally provided by my
poor drooping right index finger.).]

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