Can a singular noun represent a plural non-collective noun?
I was reading an old novel, British English written around 1850. I came across the phrase “I saw signs of elephant in the forest”. This intrigued me as the word "elephant" implies anything from a single to multiple animals. The word "signs" seems to have taken on the role of plurality for the noun. I was asked a similar question by my partner who is editing a book in which the phrase “I saw fairy dancing in the woods,” not meaning a single fairy but many fairies dancing. Can anyone expand my knowledge on the use of a singular noun being used as a non-collective plural noun?
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I have often pondered the use of the singular for animals. I don't think it has anything to do with the 'signs', but with the elephants themselves. Game hunters etc like to use the singular for the animals or birds they hunt: they go hunting snipe, for example, or bear or salmon – not snipes or bears or salmons. When referring to pet animals, however, the plural is always used: I went to Crufts and saw lots of dog? Hardly. But I went to the Serengeti and saw lots of zebra and wildebeest. Do hunters use the singular so as not to have to think about the suffering of individual animals, perhaps? Where is the cut-off point between animals we singularise and those we pluralise? (New topic: can I say singularise and pluralise??)
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