Write Tip: Collective Nouns And Impracticality For Writers (aka Word Choice Matters)

An “eloquence of lawyers?” Who comes up with these? Seriously. Have you ever run into collective nouns lists? Some of them are hard to believe. What were they thinking?

“A parliament of owls.”
“A covert of coots.”
“A murder of crows.” (You may have seen the meme on this one.)
“A pace of asses.”
“A pomp of pekingese.”
“A blessing of unicorns” doesn’t seem as bad, I mean, come on, unicorns are a blessing!
“A disguising of tailors” though is damned odd. And you already saw the lawyers one.

For more, Tiny Online has a great list divided by category here: http://users.tinyonline.co.uk/gswithenbank/collnoun.htm

Looking at the list made me ask a very simple but important question: Are these usable?

Some are known, so no issue. But others, like the examples, not only do you risk not being understood, but you risk taking people out of a story by either laughter or just the double take they do. What would you do in such a case? Use the correct term or stick with a generic like “a gathering of owls,” “a forest full of owls,” “a tree full of owls,” or even “a group of owls?” I mean, do you want to have to explain that the owls are not a) politically organized into structured bodies with a voting system and role in societal lawmaking? or b) explain they have no official capital and building where they hold chambers?  This comes, of course, from the images and questions the term “parliament” used in this way evokes.  But let’s look at a definition via my old friend: Dictionary.com.

par·lia·ment

[pahr-luh-muhnt or, sometimes, pahrl-yuh-] Show IPA

noun

1.

( usually initial capital letter ) the legislature of Great Britain,historically the assembly of the three estates, nowcomposed of Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal, formingtogether the House of Lords, and representatives of thecounties, cities, boroughs, and universities, forming theHouse of Commons.

2.

( usually initial capital letter ) the legislature of certain British colonies and possessions.

3.

a legislative body in any of various other countries.

4.

French History . any of several high courts of justice in France before 1789.

5.

a meeting or assembly for conference on public or national affairs.
Origin: 
1250–1300; Middle English:  discourse, consultation, Parliament <Anglo-Latin parliamentum,  alteration of Medieval Latin parlāmentum < Old French parlement  a speaking, conference ( see parle-ment); replacing Middle English parlement  < Old French

Related forms

an·ti·par·lia·ment, adjective
in·ter·par·lia·ment, adjective
sub·par·lia·ment, noun
Example Sentences
  • Nobody can expect a parliament to stablish what is good and what isevil.
  • The interim government will have to contend with the same cantankerousparliament that made life miserable for the old leadership.
World English Dictionary
parliament  (ˈpɑːləmənt)
— n
1. an assembly of the representatives of a political nation or people, often the supreme legislative authority
2. any legislative or deliberative assembly, conference, etc
3. Also: parlement  (in France before the Revolution) any of several high courts of justice in which royal decrees were registered
[C13: from Anglo-Latin parliamentum,  from Old French parlement,  from parler  to speak; see parley ]
Parliament  (ˈpɑːləmənt)
— n
1. the highest legislative authority in Britain, consisting of the ouse of Commons, which exercises effective power, the House of Lords, and the sovereign
2. a similar legislature in another country
3. the two chambers of a Parliament
4. the lower chamber of a Parliament
5. any of the assemblies of such a body created by a general election and royal summons and dissolved before the next election

Hmmm, no mention of owls in any of those. But plenty of mention of terms like “legislative authority, “assembly,” and “courts.” Do you see where readers might be confused?

I think word choices matter. They should fit the world, the time setting and the context without being showy or standing out.  Don’t show yourself in your work. You want readers to forget the writer and be immersed. I like learning new words, but novels aren’t the main place I go for it. If I can understand the word in context and continue reading, I’m fine with it, but if it pulls me out of the story by forcing me to seek a dictionary before continuing, I consider that bad writing. I know some will disagree, but one of my definitions of good writing is something seamless and flowing that challenges the reader without making them feel like they’re working hard. So words like these must be used with care. the argumeent “but it’s the correct term” does nothing to address the qualifications I just laid out nor the fact that if it’s obscure and rarely used, by using it, you are pointing out its oddity in a way and letting the more important goal of communicating with your readers fall by the wayside in the process.

I come from the school of readers which is more impressed with how immersed I get in your story and world than by your vocabulary. For me, the main value of diverse vocabulary is to have better words to paint pictures and vary the phrasing in descriptions as well as create dialogue unique to characters, not to show of your intelligence. But there have been many times I have read a book and wondered which goals the author had in mind. When fiction reading becomes work and not fun, I quickly lose interest, no matter whose name is on the cover. As usual, I know some writers will disagree with me, but I make this Write Tip anyway because it’s worth thinking about the choices you make, why you make them and how they affect readers.   Readers and critiques will overlook a lot of flaws if they enjoy your book. On the other hand, if you force them to work harder and look more deeply, or, even worse, annoy them, you may be in for more than you bargained for.

So I guess the moral of the story is: just because a word exists and is technically correct doesn’t make it the best word to use in your prose. Give thought to other factors before you finalize the choice. What are your goals? What are your motives? What are the possible results? Will the choice get you where you want to go with all of them?

That’s the bottom line for me. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sunforthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

3 thoughts on “Write Tip: Collective Nouns And Impracticality For Writers (aka Word Choice Matters)

  1. I agree. I can’t see myself ever using any of those strange collective nouns. I just laugh when I see lists of them.

    It occurred to me that “When fiction reading becomes work and not fun” could be a definition of literary fiction 8^}

    1. For some people it could be a definition of literary fiction. Even though literary is not my go-to fiction, I won’t go that far. The motives behind word choice matter far more to me in determining what makes books work to read over genre, etc.

      1. Yes, I was being a little facetious about literary fiction. But I’ve read stories on my Kindle where I couldn’t go a whole screen without looking up the meaning of a word (of course, the Kindle makes that more tempting by making it so easy to do)

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