"Gorillas have often been portrayed as a fearful animal"



Is the following sentence natural?

Gorillas have often been portrayed as a fearful animal, but in truth these shy apes rarely fight over sex, food, or territory.

The subject Gorillas is plural, but a fearful animal is singular.


Posted 2018-07-03T12:49:58.467

Reputation: 3 120



First of all note the difference between fearful & fearsome

I suppose you could make the jump from singular to plural without anyone noticing, but I'd do it using the comma as your 'jump-point'...

The gorilla has often been portrayed as a fearsome animal, but in truth these shy apes rarely fight over sex, food, or territory.

Otherwise use

...portrayed as fearsome animals, ...

& stick to the plural right through.

After comments -
Yes fearful could also be used - however, if there is any chance of ambiguity don't use it.
A fearful noise, fearful wind, fearful storm - inanimate objects could not be confused as being afraid.

The field mouse has often been portrayed as a fearful animal...


gone fishin' again.

Posted 2018-07-03T12:49:58.467

Reputation: 10 773

1+1 for guessing (as I did) that "fearsome" may have been the intended sense. – CCTO – 2018-07-03T15:30:26.437


Fearful and fearsome have the same meaning in some contexts (e.g. fearful creature = creature to be feared). See, for example, definition 1 at Dictionary.com.

– alex_d – 2018-07-03T21:18:11.237

1'Fearful' can indeed be used to mean both 'frightening' and 'tending to 'fear'. – Pharap – 2018-07-04T06:26:37.177


@alex_d Even if that definition is recognized by some, "fearsome" seems to be the better choice, as it is less likely to be mistaken for "being afraid". - "Fearful", as of definition 3 at Dictionary.com can mean "afraid", too. But it is not what I would be thinking of, if I read it anywhere. - I would suggest sticking to the prevalent meaning and never, ever using it for the other, as a service to understanding amongst the peoples. :)

– I'm with Monica – 2018-07-04T08:03:55.547

1@alex_d I am a 60-yo native BrE speaker, and I read "fearful animal" as "an animal tending to fear". (Particularly as David Attenborough has been portraying them as actually that since 1979.) – Martin Bonner supports Monica – 2018-07-04T12:22:55.000


The plural gorillas can be understood as a reference to the species as a whole, hence a "fearful" or "fearsome" animal, whatever the intended meaning is.

Kangaroos have often been portrayed as a pugnacious animal.

There is no obligation to see it as a plural or to see it as a reference to the species. It can be either.

But some would prefer to say

The kangaroo has often been portrayed as a pugnacious animal.


Posted 2018-07-03T12:49:58.467

Reputation: 116 610

2It seems that the singular "animal" in such examples means "a kind of animal." But can I apply the same reasoning and say "John sees comics as an interesting book," meaning "an interesting type of book"? – Apollyon – 2018-07-03T13:51:34.353

4It is not the singular alone. The article contributes to the meaning. A pugnacious animal refers to an abstraction, an animal with the quality "pugnacious". He says comics are a subversive genre. Comics have often been portrayed as a subversive genre. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2018-07-03T14:29:53.873

Are you implying "a pgunacious / fearsome animal" can be understood as an abstraction, while "an interesting book" cannot? – Apollyon – 2018-07-03T14:37:47.850

2There are numerous idiomatic phrases that follow the root structure "[plural] are a [singular]". For example, "Mosquitos are a nuisance." I don't know of a name for that sort of structure, nor can I find a source for what singular nouns are valid in such a structure. – Kamil Drakari – 2018-07-03T15:09:38.543

1I am saying that a pugnacious animal there refers not to an instance but to a class of animal whose only characteristic is its pugnacity. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2018-07-03T16:13:55.397

2He says octavos are a convenient book to carry. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2018-07-03T16:21:02.337

2He sees octavos as a convenient book to carry. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2018-07-03T21:09:17.393