Beware of False Plurals!

Ordinarily we make a plural in English by adding an “-s” at the end.

Almost immediately, though, things begin to get complicated. Sometimes you have to add “-es” (remember fourth grade?). Then some words don’t change at all to become plural, such as “fish” and “moose.” Some words change a vowel to make a plural, such as “mice.” I remember Tom the cat saying “I hate those meeses to pieces,” in Tom and Jerry cartoons, exaggerating the plural for comic effect.

And don’t get me started on all those Latin endings, “genera,” “alumni,” and “alumnae” for example. Some words don’t even have a plural! If you say “informations,” you betray that English is not your first language. “Lego,” by the way, doesn’t have a plural. No such word as “Legos.” It’s “pieces of Lego,” but I digress.

Finally, some words look like plurals but they aren’t. We call them false plurals. Sciences that end in “-ics” are all singular. Physics, cybernetics, fluidics, and finally, which leads to today’s comic, genetics. Can you tell what the verb should be?

Michael Cavna, the cartoonist, is a respected writer, enough to make me suspect this was deliberate. This misuse of “don’t” is often associated with being undereducated. He wouldn’t be insinuating that football fans are undereducated, would he??? Nah…

English Needs Another Personal Pronoun

An essay today, and a little linguistics. The other day I mentioned the singular they. This isn’t that, even though we could use a word for that, too. See yesterday’s post for mention of the best solution to that problem that I’ve found so far: rewrite the whole sentence.

What we need is an improvement on the word “we.” When you use “we,” whom are you including? You and the guy you’re talking to, or you and the guy with you? (And then there’s the plural of majesty, when you mean only yourself, but I digress.)

A pidgin language someplace in the western Pacific has a good solution:

youme, which means me and you, the guy I’m talking to.

mefellah, which means me and the guy with me, but not you.

Sometimes, especially when you’re trying to persuade someone skeptical to agree with you, using a version of “we” that indicates whether or not you’re including the person you’re talking to.

And all this reminds me of the old Lone Ranger joke:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto were on a hilltop completely surrounded by antagonistic Indians. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “Looks like we’re in a tight spot, doesn’t it?”
Tonto replies, “Who’s ‘we,’ Paleface?”

So there you have it. Should we, um, youme start a movement?

PS—Ran into this today. Not sure what kind of “we” this is. Maybe a “youme” used to mean “you”?

A Trick of the Trade

I have mentioned the trickiness of using “whom” several times over the years. I predict the word will pretty much vanish from the language in the not-so-near future; in the meantime, we have to deal with it. Use it wrong, and those in the know will hoot and holler. This is not okay if that person in the know has some kind of serious influence, such as deciding whether to hire you.

Occasionally I made passing reference to a good solution to the whole “whom” problem, but I recently ran into someone who used this good solution, and that suggested to me that maybe I should give the solution a little more emphasis. My informant is Erika Moen, author of the site Oh Joy Sex Toy. Yes, it’s an educational site about sex. And I must warn you, she’s not a fundamental baptist! Her material is not pornographic, but it’s really candid, and she covers topics that I don’t think will ever apply to me (blush), but her intent is to inform and to do so in a way that communicates well. You have been warned! Here’s the quote:

I have a bunch of friends who I love. Friends THAT I love? Friends for whom I feel love? I have some friends and I love them.

(Actually, the first sentence should have “whom,” and then it’d be right, hoot holler) But she dealt with the uncertainty by rewriting the whole sentence. Rewriting is an excellent way to eliminate those difficult passages where you’re not sure about what word or what phrase is correct.

Start over and rewrite the passage!

You might have to reflect to get the rewording to say what you want, but it’s worth the effort. You’ll eliminate having written something incorrectly; you won’t be a bad example to some beginner; and the chance is good that your rewritten passage will be more compelling than your first attempt.

Solve your problem by getting rid of it!

Editing Practice

Another easy post for me, but hard for you, I think. How would you edit this sentence? It’s from the November 14, 2017 Mr. Fitz comic:

Beware! If you go to the Mr. Fitz site, you will spend more time there than you intend. Especially if you’re a teacher.

Quick Vocabulary Lesson

I feel lazy today. Besides,  I don’t think I can add much to this Mallard Fillmore comic unless to add a list of more words that lots of folks get wrong. But you know all those, right?

Sometimes a Plural is a Singular

Usually a plural is a plural. Simple enough. For example there’s this:

Our sanctioned cloud services contain sensitive and confidential information, from customer information to partner information…

Services is a plural, right? So you use a plural verb, in this case “contain.” But what if that plural is part of the name of something? Take this headline, for example:

Amazon Web Services Adds New Services to Bolster Cloud Security

And inside the article,

The company is launching the new Amazon Web Services (AWS)…In total, AWS is adding five new encryption and security features to S3 to help protect cloud storage, including default encryption, permission checks, cross-region replication access control list overwrite, cross-region replication with KMS (Key Management Service) and a detailed inventory report.

Turns out that Amazon has a department (or team, or something) named “AWS” for “Amazon Web Services.” So when you write about the whole named organization, you have a singular!

So heads up: Think about what you’re writing about!

And now I’m going to throw you a curve: “United States,” is is singular or plural?

Well, it’s singular now. Back in Abe Lincoln’s day and earlier, it was plural. People would say “these United States” instead of “the United States.” Hmm.


I recently read an article about a book of words that English should have but doesn’t. (I tried to find it, and discovered there must be a million articles on the subject, so I suggest you do a search on “words not in English” or a similar phrase and go surfing. You’ll even find quite a few if you limit yourself to Scientific American.

Which brings us to a philosophical question: If English doesn’t have a word, can we even think the thought that the word represents? Yes! We use a circumlocution.

A circumlocution is a way of describing something without using the actual word; saying the word’s definition, as it were, or a metaphor of some kind for what the word is about. Usually we think of a circumlocution as a way to avoid using an embarrassing word; we sometimes call these euphemisms or “beating around the bush.”

It turns out English is full of idioms that are circumlocutions; today at breakfast I used a circumlocution and got teased about it; I decided this expression was a good subject to write a post about.

Four of us were enjoying breaking our nighttime fast (circumlocution for breakfast) and the coffee flowed generously (circumlocution for I drank a lot of coffee). Presently I had to get up, and I said, “Excuse me, I need to go use the men’s room.” (an obvious circumlocution for, um, what I intended to do in there (another circumlocution)). My buddy said, “Hope everything comes out all right.” (another one) And everyone laughed. This exchange would make no sense to anyone from a culture that had no taboos on scatology, but it made perfect sense to us American English speakers.

If you listen for them, I bet you’ll hear lots of circumlocutions in normal conversation.

And because I like to include pictures in my posts, I did a search on “men’s room comics” and found this example of not intending a circumlocution:

Image result for men's room cartoon

Sometimes “Their” is a Plural

For years grammarians and writers have unsuccessfully tried to figure out a good singular alternative to “him or her” (and its variants), because using three words is awkward. We have examples going clear back to Edmund Spencer of using the technically plural “their” or “they” as that singular. We even call it the singular they.

For example:

Somebody left his or her car running.

Usually we say

Somebody left their car running.

Sometimes you can recast the sentence to avoid the problem:

A car was left running out front.

But let’s face it, the singular they is pretty useful, and I think we curmudgeons just have to learn to live with it.

PS—I ran into an interesting (read tactful) use of the singular them:

Individuals who have shared intimate, nude or sexual images with partners and are worried that the partner (or ex-partner) might distribute them without their consent can use Messenger to send the images to be “hashed.”

Now having said all that, “they” and “their” are legitimate plurals, and you should be alert for when you have an actual plural. Here’s one where a professional writer (and the editor) missed the boat:

Kids will flock to a natural play area that sparks their imagination.

Plural “kids,” plural “their”—so far so good. But what about “imagination”? That should be a plural! Each kid has his or her own imagination, so the sentence should read

Kids will flock to a natural play area that sparks their imaginations.

I won’t embarrass the writer by identifying him. (I considered a little tongue-in-cheek humor by using “them” or “the person,” but I figured out that the writer is a guy, so I can safely use “him.”)

Mainly so I can have a picture in this post, here’s part of what he was writing about:

Rodney pond

Lots of People Get this Wrong

“Who,” among other things, is an interrogatory pronoun. We use it when we ask a simple question about someone.

Who ate the last cookie?

To use “who” correctly this way, you need two things:

  1. The “who” must be first.
  2. “Who” must be the subject of the sentence.

The problem is that being the first word in the sentence is a stronger signal than being the subject of the sentence, and that leads to people using “who” when they should use “whom.” For example:

Who do you think ate the last cookie?

The subject is “you,” making that “who” be the direct object, which means you need “whom.” Here’s the sentence in declarative form to make it easier to see:

You think whom ate the cookie.

Let’s change the pronoun to make it more intuitive, because I have a surprise for you:

You think him ate the cookie.

“Huh??? Shouldn’t it be ‘You think he ate the cookie.’?” you ask.

And yes, you’d be right. “He” is the subject of the subordinate clause “-he ate the cookie,” even though the whole subordinate clause functions as the direct object. So in a declarative sentence, with the subordinate subject right there in the clause,  “he” is correct. Sorry to have to throw a grammatical weasel at you, but when you drag the word to the front of the sentence, as you must do when you ask a question, you have to use “whom” to warn your reader that you have a direct object coming up.

All that to praise the porcupine in this Grizzwells comic for getting it right:

Simple version of the rule: If the question has two verbs, use “whom.”