Writing Corner: Group Words

English has a lot of little quirks, but one of the quirkiest is all the words it has for groups of animals. If you look at a site like Owlcation, you can find a huge list of words, many of which sounds like they’re just made up, but probably were used very long ago. Still, even if you only count the common ones, there are a lot. For example:

  • A herd of deer
  • A pod of whales
  • A pride of lions
  • A flock of birds
  • A litter of kittens
  • A pack of wolves
  • A school of fish
  • A gaggle of geese
  • A swarm of flies

and so on…

For writers, these present a lot of interesting possibilities. We’re going to look at three ways to use these kind of group words in your writing.

1. For the actual animals

Let’s be clear, you can always use “group” for a collection of things, so don’t feel like you’re doing it wrong if you don’t refer to a group of apes as “a troop of apes” or a group of giraffes as “a tower of giraffes”. However, these words can add a little spice to your writing.

A caravans of camels stood watching me across the square where they were waiting their turn to drink from the spring.

However, just like unusual spices in cooking, unusual words will stand out. Words should add to your story, not call attention to themselves or to the writing itself. For example, it might be a little much to write like this:

The woods were a chaos of noise. A mutation of thrushes had roosted in the pines and across the road, a murmuration of starlings formed a rival chorus.

The only thing implausible about gnus is anyone referring to a group of them as “an implausibility of gnus”.

2. Metaphorically for People

This is useful when you want to attribute one or two aspects of an animal to a group of people. For example, you might compare tourists with locusts, who come in large numbers to eat and buy everything up.

A swarm of tourists arrived in the late afternoon and soon the plaza was filled with loud voices and even louder T-shirts.

Other examples could be:

  • A pack of boys (wild, like wolves)
  • A gaggle of kindergarten students (loud and slow, like geese)
  • A flock of commuters (moving together quickly, like birds)
  • A pride of executives (a small imperious group, like lions)

This is a very concise way of connecting some aspect of the people with that same aspect in the animals. This will only work with words that people are familiar with, so if you refer to “a kettle of lawyers”, in wanting to compare them with vultures, people might not understand. “A kettle of vultures”, is not a common expression, at least not with the people I talk to.

3. Using your own creations

Finally, because English does use this type of word a lot, you can also make up your own custom group words for people or animals.

For example, in my book Princess Shade, there is a fictional creature called a squeak-pig that emits helium. Here’s a sentence from the story:

A group of squeak pigs is called a belch and at that moment, there was a belch of forty squeak pigs tied up in the center of the ballroom, attached to hoses that sent the helium up into the Ballooon.

(note: in the story, Ballooon is intentionally spelled with three o’s)

The best way to create a new word is to think of some distinctive aspect of the people or animals, which is how many of the group words were created in the first place. For example:

  • A disappointment of drunks
  • A litigation of lawyers
  • A chortle of toddlers

Whatever word you choose will show how you are trying to portray that group. For example “a rave of college students” and “a stressor of college students” paints two different pictures of students in university. Just like with anything unusual, just make sure you don’t use this technique too often and make sure that it is clear what you mean. It is better to use a simpler term than to cause confusion in your writing.

A triage of EMTs?

Do you use these kind of group words in your writing? Let me know in the comments or email me at info@greenwalledtreehouse.com.

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