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I began to read the original version of Harry Potter recently. But I got stuck at the very beginning: I don't understand the meaning of the following line which appears in the first chapter of The Philosopher's Stone:

this was probably some silly stunt — these people were obviously collecting for something

After checking it out in several translations, I found that even translators don't have a consensus about its meaning! One translation tell me it means "these people were gathering together for some special and silly purpose", while for another translation, "these people were collecting money for some strange charitable purpose".

The thing is, both translation are compatible with what I get when looking up "collect" in dictionaries. It seems that 'collect' has the following 2 meanings applicable here as an intransitive verb: 1)to assemble, as in " A crowd soon collected at the scene of the the accident"; 2)to obtain (money or contribution) from a number of people or places, as in "He's collecting for famine relief".

How can one exclude one of the above explanation, leaving the other the only possibility?

EDIT: @Adam has pointed out that the text two paragraphs below:

He'd forgotten all about the people in coats until he passed a group of them next to the baker's. He eyed them angrily as he passed. He didn't know why, but they made him uneasy. This bunch were whispering excitedly, too, and he couldn't see a single collecting tin.

implies that here "collecting" should mean "collecting money or contribution". That's a good point, but is there any more direct way that we can turn to decide the meaning of this sentence?

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    In practice I'd say this verb use of collect is effectively a "back-formation" from [have a] collection [for X] (ask people to donate money to X). An Oxfam fundraiser might feasibly say I collect for Oxfam, but I can't really imagine a "freelance fundraiser" (someone who does this on behalf of many charities, but doesn't want to name them) saying something like What do I do for a job? I collect (except maybe facetiously). But they might well say I organise collections, which would be easily understood. – FumbleFingers Jul 10 '17 at 14:13
  • @FumbleFingers Thank you. So can I assume that when "collect" arrise without an object, it will mean "raising money"? – Censi LI Jul 10 '17 at 14:32
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    @Censi LI: As implied by my earlier comment, you'll probably never have to make that assumption, because you're not likely to ever come across collect [donations] used in this way without some kind of "object" being explicitly stated. The primary "direct" object (money, donations, contributions, etc.) is often omitted, as in your cited example, but even there the "indirect object" (for something) is at least syntactically present. Don't forget that people also collect things like old clothes for charity, not just money. – FumbleFingers Jul 10 '17 at 14:45
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    The other piece of context that is relevant is found one paragraph later, as Dursley passes the group again: "He’d forgotten all about the people in cloaks until he passed a group of them next to the baker’s. He eyed them angrily as he passed. He didn’t know why, but they made him uneasy. This bunch were whispering excitedly, too, and he couldn’t see a single collecting tin." A "collecting tin" is the little pail that someone collecting for charity might ask donations to be dropped into. – Adam Jul 10 '17 at 16:43
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    I see nothing "obsolete" about usages such as a trio of drunks collected around a fire hydrant, and although I think it's probably unlikely, I certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility that Rowling in your cited context consciously and deliberately allowed / created a certain amount of allusion (not really "ambiguity") with her usage. She's a pretty careful writer overall, even though her primary concern must always be to ensure that (native speaker) children should understand her text. – FumbleFingers Jul 12 '17 at 15:05
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It is definitely "collecting money"

In British English (among others), "collecting [for something]" is an idiomatic phrase meaning "collecting monetary donations".

While I am a native speaker of Australian English, not British, I am very confident that this is the author's sole intended meaning. I do not agree with Brillig's opinion that this is an intentional double meaning. Using "collect" of people getting themselves together in a group is, in my experience, vanishingly rare, despite related terms like "collective".

Sadly, I must conclude that one of the two translations you checked (well done on that, by the way) was simply wrong.

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The actual answer is that this interesting phrase creates a double meaning, or two valid meanings at once. Collecting money is the primary meaning. However, the author uses specific wording that is vague enough that collecting actually can work with both meanings. Mr. Dursley sees people who are oddly-dressed, and naturally concludes that they are collecting for some purpose but, also, at the same time, speculates that the purpose is an intention to collect money. The sort of unconventional language of the author, not specifically saying the more common collecting money for something, was probably specifically done to create this double meaning.

A double meaning is a literary device that one sees quite often especially in works of fiction from better writers. The wording could also have been: they were obviously collecting to be collecting for something or it could have been they were obviously collecting for something to be collected. Neither of these alterations changes the meaning of what was written at all. But I can only make these alterations without changing the meaning of the text because there is a double meaning of collecting as I described.

In this case you need to provide the surrounding text for context. I found:

As he sat in the usual morning traffic jam, he couldn't help noticing that there seemed to be a lot of strangely dressed people about. People in cloaks. Mr. Dursley couldn't bear people who dressed in funny clothes -- the getups you saw on young people! He supposed this was some stupid new fashion. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and his eyes fell on a huddle of these weirdos standing quite close by. They were whispering excitedly together. Mr. Dursley was enraged to see that a couple of them weren't young at all; why, that man had to be older than he was, and wearing an emerald-green cloak! The nerve of him! But then it struck Mr. Dursley that this was probably some silly stunt -- these people were obviously collecting for something... yes, that would be it.

Given the surrounding text so far there are a lot of people who have similar odd-looking clothes on and therefore this supports collecting in its primary meaning when there is no object - that is to gather together; assemble. So far, there is not any active collection of money, clothes, etc. taking place. The people don't approach him as he sits in his car and ask for contributions - they are just people that Mr. Dursley notices as an oddly-dressed group. Thus one of your translations you found gives this meaning of collecting and without the additional textual clues it seems valid enough. However...

As @Adam pointed out there is an additional important clue two paragraphs down that I found here (with @Adam's help). The text two paragraphs down states:

He'd forgotten all about the people in coats until he passed a group of them next to the baker's. He eyed them angrily as he passed. He didn't know why, but they made him uneasy. This bunch were whispering excitedly, too, and he couldn't see a single collecting tin.

This additional clue makes it clear that Mr. Dursley initially believed that they were gathered together for the purpose of collecting money.

What is interesting is that therefore this is really a double meaning of collecting. Mr. Dursley clearly understands that there are people gathering together or collecting, one definition, and also thinks that the purpose of their gathering together is to collect money, or collecting. Collecting money is the primary meaning. However, the author uses specific wording that is vague enough that collecting actually can work with both meanings.

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    Even with just the context that you provide, I would (and did) read it as Dursley trying to rationalize the weird assemblage by viewing it as a charity drive. This interpretation of Dursley's thoughts is confirmed one paragraph later, as Dursley passes the group again: "He’d forgotten all about the people in cloaks until he passed a group of them next to the baker’s. He eyed them angrily as he passed. He didn’t know why, but they made him uneasy. This bunch were whispering excitedly, too, and he couldn’t see a single collecting tin." – Adam Jul 10 '17 at 16:49
  • Hmm. Disadvantage of the Internet. I don't have the next paragraph on the page I happened to pull up. I think I'll revise my answer. Is this the entire next paragraph as you've quoted it? I'll Google and try and find it. – Brillig Jul 10 '17 at 16:53
  • The verb collect is used here only in the sense of taking a collection of money. There isn't even a whiff of the intransitive collect here. My kids got it immediately when I asked them. "It's like the Lions Club on Memorial Day stopping cars", quoth my lad. The first translator who tried to render the text into the OP's unspecified English language got it wrong. That's all. And while it's marvelous that the Potter books have inspired kids to read, if this is "quality literature", what do we call Heart of Darkness? – P. E. Dant Jul 10 '17 at 19:39
  • @P. E. Dant think of it this way. The wording could also have been: they were obviously collecting to be collecting for something or it could have been they were obviously collecting for something to be collected. Neither of these alterations changes the meaning of what was written at all. But I can only make these alterations without changing the meaning of the text because there is a double meaning of collecting as I described*. – Brillig Jul 10 '17 at 21:01
  • @P. E. Dant also if we were watching a high school football game and I said to you Watch how this quarterback reads the safeties and makes audibles at the line of scrimmage. This is something that one sees in pro quarterbacks quite a bit actually would you therefore claim that I had just said he was a better quarterback than Tom Brady? I just want to know if you're consistent with your interpretations. Because my interpretation would be that he is only exhibiting a single characteristic of pro QBs, not that he's better than Brady or even a pro QB himself. – Brillig Jul 10 '17 at 21:08

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