Websites for Writers has a lot of great articles on the professional side of writing like Claire Broadley’s How to Make Money Blogging With Problogger and Yasmin Purnell’s Improve the SEO Ranking of Your Copy with Yoast SEO. But I thought it might be interesting to spend a little time talking about spicing up your writing with all the bizarre variety of names for animal groups. Follow along; I think you’ll find it fun.
William Buckley was fond of using obscure words, and then getting into arguments with people who called him pretentious. Buckley always claimed that it was right and proper to use an obscure word if it had exactly the right meaning that the writer was looking for. And sure: there is something to that. There are times when I fret over finding a word that has a very specific meaning. But how many readers are clear about the difference between “fatuous” and “idiotic”? The situation is far worse when one of the words isn’t even known by the reader. But the truth is that word choice involves a lot of different issues — including meter, sound, and even style.
Animal Groups Page
This is why I often find myself using the Animal Groups Page on The Almighty Guru. For one thing, I can’t usually remember the standard word for a group of any given animal. What about ducks? A flock? Well sure — if they are in the air. But what if they are on the ground? Or in the water? There are different words for each. I’m not suggesting that people will laugh at you if you refer to a flock of ducks on the pond (although William Buckley would have). But knowing different words for a group of animals can make your writing more interesting.
For example, I’m an intense lover of rats. They really are better than cats and dogs — as long as you can house train them. But I still find it delightful to be able to write of a “plague of rats.” Oh sure, “colony” is usually the word that’s called for. But plague is fun. And if you are in a situation where you need to use “colony” a lot, it’s nice to have alternatives to spice things up. “Pack” is another common word for a group of rats. The Animal Groups Page also mentions “swarm,” although I don’t ever remember seeing or hearing that.
Word Choice Is More Than Meaning
It’s important not to get too caught up in the meaning of words as Mr Buckley did with an annoying frequency. As writers advance in their craft, they automatically get more accurate. This is one of the primary reasons why reading is so important to improving your writing. But it is also important to be able to create colorful sentences that flow. Yet writers rarely think about this. And they should! People are far more keen to read colorful flowing sentences than dull, awkward, but highly accurate ones.
Here’s a good writing exercise. Take a short piece of your writing — maybe 500 words. Record yourself reading it. And then listen to it back sentence by sentence. You will likely find that some of those sentences land with a boring thud. And others will pain you just like fingernails on a chalkboard. This is an especially helpful exercise if you write dialog. But it will help you with any kind of writing.
Spice Up Your Writing
Having different words for animal groups will help you write sentences that flow better and are more colorful. What’s more, you may find that you simply like some words more. For example, I almost always refer to a “trip of goats.” That’s just because goats strike me as a species that is going somewhere. (I never use “trip of sheep” because I just don’t think they deserve it.) But I also like the sound of it.
Having different choices also allows you to fit the word with others in the same sentence or phrase.
Many people complain to me that English has too many words that mean much the same thing (as though I am somehow responsible for the language). I understand that it can be annoying. And it must be frustrating for those just learning the language. But having ten different words for a group of birds gives us writers a lot of flexibility. And they make writing fun. So use them!
Your readers will appreciate hearing that a float of crocodiles waited for a bloat of hippopotamuses to leave so they could cross the river safely. I didn’t have to rhyme there. I could have used a “bask” of crocodiles,” but I thought this was more fun. Plus, “bask” seems to imply crocodiles sunning themselves. And yes: crocodiles really are afraid of hippopotamuses. Never mess with a hippopotamus!
There are other websites that provide names for animal groups. If you know of one you like more than Animal Groups Page, please let us know in the comments!