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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.

18

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...

Really?

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  • 1
    +1 for guessing (as I did) that "fearsome" may have been the intended sense.
    – CCTO
    Jul 3 '18 at 15:30
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    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
    Jul 3 '18 at 21:18
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    'Fearful' can indeed be used to mean both 'frightening' and 'tending to 'fear'.
    – Pharap
    Jul 4 '18 at 6:26
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    @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. :) Jul 4 '18 at 8:03
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    @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.) Jul 4 '18 at 12:22
11

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.

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  • 2
    It 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
    Jul 3 '18 at 13:51
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    It 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. Jul 3 '18 at 14:29
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    There 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. Jul 3 '18 at 15:09
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    He says octavos are a convenient book to carry. Jul 3 '18 at 16:21
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    He sees octavos as a convenient book to carry. Jul 3 '18 at 21:09

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