What Does the Hog-nosed Skunk Say?

Transferred from en.wikipedia and licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons (original uploader was Caspian).
Color illustration of a hog-nosed skunk by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, published by the National Geographic Society in “Wild Animals of North America,” copyright 1918.

Here’s a word challenge for people who write about wildlife:

Let’s say you’re describing the coloration of hog-nosed skunks. Which is correct: “They have a white back,” or, “They have white backs”?

Depending on how you like to solve puzzles, you might suggest rewording this as, “It has a white back,” avoiding the question altogether. Reframing the sentence with a singular subject is a fine solution, but let’s say you can’t do it for some reason. Suppose, for example, that the piece you’re working on otherwise describes hog-nosed skunks in the plural. It would sound odd, now, to switch to a singular subject.

This brings us back to the original question: Do hog-nosed skunks have white backs, or a white back?

Our style at Arizona Wildlife Views is to say, “Hog-nosed skunks have a white back.” We made the choice because when we describe the coloration of an animal, we envision that animal as a single creature. This is true even if we are using “hog-nosed skunks” as the subject. It looks plural, but we treat it as singular and use words that describe a single example of the species. An animal has one back, and the back of a hog-nosed skunk is white.

However, the same animal has two ears and four paws, so to continue the description we might say, “They have black ears and black paws” (with “ears” and “paws” in the plural). Again, we’re describing the coloration of a single animal, but now we’re using plural terms to describe it accurately.

A full description might sound like this: “Hog-nosed skunks have a black body with a white stripe down the back, a white tail, a white stripe down the nose, black ears and black paws.” I think that sounds natural to the reader, whereas “Hog-nosed skunks have black bodies with white stripes down their backs …” sounds odd.

You may also notice a potential miscue: If hog-nosed skunks have white stripes down their backs, does each skunk have one stripe, or more than one? Avoiding potential confusion is another reason why our style choice is to describe a single animal, even when the subject sounds plural.

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