The singular of ‘cattle’

Hello all, and yet another fiendish mess of English-paper tricksiness has landed on my desk.

The AQE, or Association for Quality Education, is responsible for the transfer exams in Northern Ireland (the exams I knew as the ’11+’). For those of you who do not know what these are, at the end of primary school one sat these exams and those who did well were eligible for grammar school education while those who struggled were directed into comprehensive schools. These exams directly affected the course (and potentially the quality) of the education you received afterwards.

The AQE has just released its 2009 test papers back to the schools (though they do not yet seem to be on the website), in which, apparently, they ask the question “what is the singular of ‘cattle’?”

When my nearest and dearest – some of whom are primary school teachers in NI – read this, it provoked great consternation, because it is a question that really doesn’t have an answer anything like as obvious as it seems at first glance. When someone phoned me to ask my opinion, I realised that all I could tell them was: there is no right answer. This is an impossible question.

Let’s dismiss the obvious contenders first. The singular of ‘cattle’ is not ‘cow’. Cows are female, whereas cattle can be animals of either sex. The plural of cow is cows, and though a herd of cattle may be composed solely of cows it does not therefore follow that the reverse is true. That’s like saying ‘all swans are waterfowl therefore all waterfowl are swans’. What about ducks, geese and coots? In the same way, where ‘cattle’ is concerned, what about bulls, calves, bullocks, oxen and steers?

But in fact the issue is even more complicated again. ‘Cattle’, according to the massed dictionaries accumulated at, is not even specific to ‘the bovine ilk’, as Ogden Nash once put it. ‘Cattle’ can be used correctly of any domesticated animal. You could argue, with some justification, that the singular of ‘cattle’ is ‘horse’, ‘sheep’, ‘pig’ or even ‘husky’. And that’s not even factoring in the derogatory sense of the word, in which it can be applied to human beings. (On a related note, what is the singular of ‘sheeple’?)

The word derives from the Norman-Picard ‘catel‘ (which is itself a version of the Old French ‘chatel‘, from which we derive ‘chattel‘), and both these words come from the Latin ‘capitale‘. So Capital Gains Tax, for instance, is directly related etymologically to how many head of cattle you have. The use of the word ‘cattle’ implies ownership; therefore, the closest thing to a correct answer I can offer is this: “The singular of ‘cattle’ is ‘one animal that is someone’s personal property’.”

Now, how many 10-and-11-year-olds are going to work that out?

Even more interestingly, how many markers do we think are going to work that out? I phoned the AQE this morning to ask. The guy on the other end of the line – who couldn’t fob me off fast enough, it seemed, once he realised my concern – told me that the question had already provoked great discussion with the markers. I bet it had. He also told me that there were three answers they were prepared to accept, though he couldn’t tell me what they were. When I told him I could think of at least six that would be equally acceptable, he reiterated that they had three. And just to repeat my point – these may be acceptable answers, but they’re not correct answers, since there is no right answer to the question.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with the idea of the transfer exam. What I have a massive problem with is rigging it with impossible questions, and then marking as correct answers which cannot possibly be so. Of course there are questions that do not have simple right or wrong answers – but is it really fair to ask them of 10-year-olds? And is it good educational practice to mark as correct answers which are not?

The question should not have been asked. Otherwise it opens the door to other, even more tricky ones, like: who was the person who posed it in the first place? Who was on the committee that approved it? And why do we trust them to determine the remainder of our childrens’ education?

These are questions for which I suspect the answer, like the singular of cattle, will not be easily forthcoming.

Anyway, and while wondering “What is the sound of one cattle clapping?”, here is your moment of Zen:

No cattle, but something black-and-white in a semi-rural setting. It's the best I can do.


About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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2 Responses to The singular of ‘cattle’

  1. Pingback: What’s the singular form of ‘cattle’? « Motivated Grammar

  2. Gabe says:

    Great post! I had been thinking about this issue the week before, and seeing this post prompted me to investigate the question myself (hence the trackback as the comment above this one). I’ve decided that, for me, either “head of cattle” (for technical contexts) or “cow” (for informal contexts) are the best choices — despite the ambiguity that arises from “cow” in a technical context being restricted to female animals. I’m guessing that those are two of the three answers that the AQE would accept, but who knows? That said, I understand your dismissal of “cow” as the singular. It’s surprising how there really isn’t a true singular for “cattle” in English.

    I can’t believe they asked something like that on a test for 10 year olds. For all of the myriad failures of American educational system, I’m at least glad that my early education in it wasn’t quite so dependent on standardized tests. Getting into college and grad school, of course, is another story.

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