Collective Nouns Are Singular But Often With Plural Meaning

Lesson 19 in the 'Real Spanish Grammar' Series

Vatican City
Ciudad del Vaticano. (Vatican City.). Photo by Giorgio Galleotti; licensed via Creative Commons.

See in this selection how a singular noun can refer to a group of more than one person.

Excerpt from news article: El Papa Francisco dejó claro que su primer objetivo era estar con el pueblo. Y así fue. El vehículo que llevaba al Santo Padre y a [presidenta brasileña Dilma] Rousseff desde el aeropuerto hasta la ciudad avanzó arropado por una multitud de gente que se acercaba a tratar de ver de cerca al «Papa de los pobres», sin vallas de seguridad que los separase.

(The bracketed description of Rousseff was added to the original for clarity here.)

Source: ABC.es, a Madrid-based news site. Retrieved July 23, 2013.

Suggested translation: Pope Francis made clear that his first goal was to be with the people. And so it was. The vehicle that transported the Holy Father and [Brazilian President Dilma] Rousseff from the airport toward the city proceeded while enveloped by a crowd of people who got near in order to see the "pope of the poor" from nearby without security barriers to separate them.

Key grammatical issue: This selection shows how collective nounspueblo, multitud and gente — are singular in form even though they sometimes are translated as plurals.

Although both pueblo and gente are translated here as "people," note how in Spanish they are singular words. Pueblo is used with the singular definite article el, and the singular verbs se acercaba (from the reflexive verb acercarse) and separase (a subjunctive form of separar) go with multitud de gente.

We do the same thing in English — the most common translations for multitud, "crowd" and "multitude," are singular even though they refer to multiple people. If pueblo and gente seem confusing, it's only because they aren't translated here as singular terms (although in a different context pueblo could refer to a small town).

Other notes on vocabulary and grammar:

  • Personal titles in Spanish — such as doctora in la doctora Sánchez (Dr. Sánchez) and señor in el señor Robles (Mr. Robles) — are not capitalized, and it would have been acceptable here to write el papa Francisco instead of el Papa Francisco. However, it is not unusual to capitalize the titles of certain people, Catholic popes among them, out of respect. When talking about people using their titles, the definite article (such as el in el Papa Francisco or la in la doctora Sánchez) is used. If you were speaking to these people using their titles, however, you would not use the article.
  • Dejar claro is an idiom meaning "to make clear." Dejar en claro means the same thing and is more frequently used.
  • Primer is the apocopated form of primero.
  • Llevar is a common verb typically meaning "to carry."
  • Note the double use of the personal a after llevaba. It is used here both before Santo Padre (al is the combined form meaning a plus el) and before Rousseff. The personal a is also used before the phrase in angular quotes.
  • The preposition desde often suggests motion from a place, in this case the airport. Motion toward is indicated by hacia.
  • "While" was used in the translation for clarity. There is no equivalent word used here in the original Spanish.
  • Arropado is the past participle of arropar, which typically means "to wrap." However, it would be usual in English to say that someone was wrapped by a crowd. But the image the verb conveys is one of being closely surrounded, and "enveloped" seemed to work fine, although other phrases might have been used as well.
  • Acercar usually means "to bring nearer." In the reflexive form, as here, it usually means "to approach" or "to get nearer."
  • Tratar is a common verb often meaning "to try."
  • Angular quotation marks are used in the same way as standard double quotation marks. They are more common in publications from Spain than those from Latin America. Note how the comma after pobres is placed outside the quote marks rather than inside as it would be in American English.
  • Valla is a word for "fence." The term vallas de seguridad usually refers to small, metallic, portable fencelike structures that are used to control crowds and keep people in orderly lines.
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    Erichsen, Gerald. "Collective Nouns Are Singular But Often With Plural Meaning." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/collective-nouns-singular-often-plural-meaning-3079261. Erichsen, Gerald. (2017, March 2). Collective Nouns Are Singular But Often With Plural Meaning. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/collective-nouns-singular-often-plural-meaning-3079261 Erichsen, Gerald. "Collective Nouns Are Singular But Often With Plural Meaning." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/collective-nouns-singular-often-plural-meaning-3079261 (accessed January 21, 2018).