Thursday, 9 December 2010

A question of grammar

I've just had an amusing email from an occasional correspondent, a teacher, who reads my blog from time to time. Referring to the post before last (see 'Bazadaise') about my fascination with breeds of cattle, he wondered what my thoughts were on a question in last year's Grammar School Entrance test paper, namely:

'What is the singular of "cattle"?'

He ends his email by saying, 'Please don't say, get a life. I'm a P7 teacher - this is my life. And anyway, it wasn't me who was fascinated by cows turning into a field!!!'

Well, I wouldn't dream of telling him to get a life, because this kind of question fascinates me almost as much as cows turning into fields (almost as much).

It's tempting to say that there is no singular form of the collective noun 'cattle', because we all know you can't have one cattle. For a singular form, you have to look to the type of animal you're talking about: a bullock, a heiffer etc.

However. I take a different view - two different views as a matter of fact. The first comes from my experience cowboying in British Columbia in 1975. When we were moving cattle, and a single animal broke loose from the herd, it didn't matter whether it was a steer, a cow, a heiffer or a bull - the cow boss always yelled, 'Can somebody get that cow!' It was the norm in that area, and indeed I believe it's universal in the cattle business in North America. So in that sense, whether or not 'cattle' has a singular form depends on where you're standing.

The second view, for me, makes just as much sense and also allows for a singular form. It's a noun phrase, and to use an example from my own post, what I saw disappearing into the field the other day was the rear end of one head of cattle.
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