4.02.2008

the slow rise of the plingular

now that i'm working in a writing/editing setting, at some moments i get to discuss usage professionally. sometimes this is particularly interesting, since the News Editor to my Editorial Assistant is British. recently, he caught a 'mistake' in an ad. it was the sentence,
that's a savings of over $400!
"shouldn't it be 'that's a saving,'?" he said, very reasonably. 'why, yes,' i said, 'it probably should. '

but it just isn't.

comparative google stats bear out my assertion: 124,000 hits for "that's a savings" vs. 59,000 hits for "that's a saving." it's apparently not done across the pond, though.

similarly, while we were debating the capitalization of the following headline:
Why Are Operations the Forgotten Part of Firefighting?
i asked, "shouldn't it be 'Why is Operations...'?" and, sure enough, our intuitions and the rest of the article agreed. (otherwise, wouldn't it have to be 'Why Are Operations the Forgotten Parts of Firefighting?) it doesn't sound right, either (maybe this is just in the firefighting speech community?) to say, "Why is Operation the Forgotten Part..." it's also surprisingly hard to find a good standard for capitalization, but that's a whole nother post.

so, what's going on then, eh? somehow 'operations' and 'savings,' which both have legitimate s-less singular versions, have migrated over into singular territory themselves.

it strikes me that both of these singular nouns are parts of a whole. when they're not used that way, we naturally revert to the plural verb forms. 'operations are going well,' 'savings are hard to come by,' but in the original cases given, they're specifically a single part of a whole -- either part of a price or part of firefighting.

however, that doesn't seem to be a 'reason,' per se, and it seems to take some repeated use for nouns to wear down into this pattern. evidence for the slow, uneven (even unmotivated?) erosion of usage: these aberrant singulars are particular to speech communities (Americans, Firefighters) and i have trouble coming up with novel examples. 'flowers is a forgotten part of romance,' doesn't seem right. maybe it's the suffixes? no... 'mastications is an important part of digestion' doesn't sound good, either.

i'd love to hear them if you have other examples of s-ending singulars. the only other one i can think of, interestingly, is 'news,' which was originally the plural form of 'newe,' meaning a new thing or tiding. but that word had been in this grammatical predicament since it was middle english.

4 comments:

joeclark said...

I think this is a noncontroversial usage: Some apparent plurals are treated as singular, like economics, linguistics, astrophysics, orthopedics, politics.

Cristi said...

hey joe, that's an interesting set of examples, and i also thought of 'semantics' while writing the post. they seem similar to the 'operations' example because they all gather disparate things under one heading or field of study, maybe.

the main difference, though, is that they don't have singulars like 'linguistic' and 'astrophysic.' it would be interesting to research whether these with-s singulars arose differently from the ones i cited in the post...

Scott said...

there's an important difference between your examples, cristi, and joe's. with the exception of "astrophysics," all of joe's examples become adjectives with the s is removed. your examples, on the other hand, do not.

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