The Wildlife Conundrum

Is the word “wildlife” singular or plural?

You’d think this question would cease to haunt my dreams, now that I’m well into my eighth year on the staff of a wildlife magazine.

In a previous post titled “10,000 Hours” (August 2012), I confessed to feeling that I’m becoming worse at choosing whether to deploy the singular or plural form of a word such as “dove” in a sentence. The Wildlife Conundrum is the granddaddy of these problems. Imagine how often I’m faced with it when editing a magazine about Arizona’s critters.

Like “dove,” wildlife is a “mass noun,” something that is “uncountable … because it refers to an indeterminate aggregation of people or things.” (The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition) As the subject of a sentence, a mass noun may take either a singular or plural verb form. Wildlife is? Wildlife are? That’s the conundrum.

Chicago, of course, offers an answer: “A singular verb emphasizes the group; a plural verb emphasizes the individual members.” In other words, either choice might be right, depending on the writer’s intention.

To my way of thinking, the sentence “Wildlife is all around us” indicates an abstract idea, a web of wild and mysterious “other” life. “Wildlife are all around us,” on the other hand, creates an image of lots of different animals.

When I deploy “wildlife” as the subject of a sentence, it’s not too much trouble to decide between a concrete image, a varied horde; or something more vague, an idea of wildness embodied in animal life.

The trouble comes when two sentences in close proximity to one another use “wildlife” in different ways. Here’s a recent example from a booklet I’ve been editing:

Wildlife is often active in poor weather. Most wildlife seek cover during really bad weather.

In revising those sentences, I opted for the plural verb to emphasize the individual members rather than the group. In fact, I combined the sentences into one:

Although wildlife often are active in poor weather, most wildlife seek cover if the weather becomes very bad.

When I’m flummoxed by the Wildlife Conundrum, it’s comforting to remember I am not the only one. Here’s another example from the booklet:

Some wildlife appears only during certain seasons, such as when they are migrating.

Ouch.

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