A correspondent wrote: “One of my friends asked me why we say something has a ‘fifty mile’ radius instead of saying it has a ‘fifty miles’ radius. Do you know why we drop the ‘s’ in that situation?” I responded:

The example you give is an adjective formation, and in that context the singular is always used in English, whether it’s a unit of measure or not: a three-country pact, a ten-gallon hat, a six-man crew, etc. I’m not sure what the accepted historical analysis is, but it occurs to me that it might be a generalization from the situation with units of measure, in which people used to use what looked like a singular in all contexts: “It’s five mile to the next town,” “The water level is eight foot down,” etc. Now, in that context it’s a remnant of the Old English genitive plural. For instance, the plural of fōt ‘foot’ was fēt, which became feet, but the genitive plural (‘of feet’) was fōta, which became foot just like the singular. My guess is that in adjectival constructions, the apparent singular was generalized to all nouns, perhaps partly because it’s easier to say without the plural –s, but otherwise the plural was generalized (though there are still people who say “eight foot down” and so on).

Rather than actually do some research to try to find out what the accepted explanation is, I had the bright idea of tossing the question out there for you knowledgeable readers to deal with. Anybody know?


  1. Datawise, I still might say “five foot tall” occasionally. I would always say “five foot two” which is canonical.
    A friend claims to have heard “two mile down the road”.

  2. Bruce Balden says

    In the (modern) English language, adjectives, including adjectival phrases, are not inflected according to gender or number. In the case of adjectival phrases, this would mean not imputing inflection to the principal noun therein. Therefore changing “one-mile radius” and “five-mile radius” does not cause “mile” to be inflected. In short, although “mile” seems like a noun, in this sentence it has been forced into an adjectival role (part of and adjectival phrase).
    English’s ability to create noun/verb/adjective phrases from other parts of speech, thereby morphing/subverting the language is a wonderful part of the language, but when it happens you have to be prepared to sacrifice something to the rules of the target role. This case is a good example of that.

  3. Victor S. says

    Steven Pinker wrote a whole book – “Words and Rules” (his best, imo) – about the quirks of English irregular tenses and nouns; this kind of formation was one of the topics, if I remember correctly.

  4. Why doesn’t the descended-from-OE analysis work for all your examples (“a three-country pact”, etc.)? Those seem exactly like genitive constructions. Why would anything have to have been generalized?

  5. I won’t touch this with a 10-foot pole.
    Well actually, is it possible the singular adjectival phrase (“10-foot”) came about because of the generally singular subject(“pole”)? “Seven-league boots” is an exception (but boots is almost unitary like “pants”) but most of the time these things are used as singulars. IOW, a plural adjective doesn’t make sense with a singular subject.

  6. But don’t we say “six feet under”?

  7. marie-lucie says

    Martin, in all these examples the combination “numeral + noun” funtions as an adjective, or more specifically like a “modifier”, that’s why the noun is not plural, because it is not the main element of the phrase: if you want to shorten the phrase “with a 10-foot pole” you can say “with a pole”, or rephrase it as “with a long pole”, not “with 10 feet” which would have a different meaning.
    Another example is “a 100-dollar bill” which would be rephrased as “a large bill” or shortened as “a bill”, as opposed to “a hundred dollars” which counts the number of dollars but does not specify how that sum is actualized (eg with smaller bills, with a check, etc).
    Manolia, “six feet under” is not the same type of thing. It means “(in a place) underground, at a distance of six feet”. This is not the same thing as describing some one as “six foot tall”, where “tall” (an adjective) expresses a quality, not a location. Here “six + foot” acts as a modifier to the word “tall”, which could be used by itself, but instead of “six foot tall” you could say “very tall”, using another modifier, here “very”.

  8. marie-lucie says

    p.s. The noun after the numeral being singular has nothing to do with the number of the main noun, for instance you can talk about “one hundred-dollar bill” or “five hundred-dollar bills”, just like “one large bill” or “five large bills”.

  9. Stephen Mulraney says

    I’ve heard “two mile down the road” many times in Ireland. It’s mostly a country (i.e. non-city) thing, and generally confined to older people, but not exclusively.
    Considering examples like ‘car factory’, rather than ‘cars factory’ (no apostrophe, since I’m not going to decide whether that impossible form involves a plural or a possessive) – and this latter is common mistake among my Polish students – I’m inclined to think that the unit-of-measurement analysis you give isn’t the source of all examples of this pattern.
    I usually describe the process to my students in the same way that Bruce does. Because they’re Polish, I say that the English for the adjective ending -owy is simply -0 (zero). That usually works. Of course not all adjectives in Polish are in -owy. Although there are many fun ones like that, such as rock-and-rollowy (as I saw somewhere recently).

  10. marie-lucie says

    SM, no, measurement is not the only thing, but the common factor in all these patterns is that something is used to modify a noun, whether in a phrase or a compound noun (not necessarily written as one word). “Car factory” is an example of a compound noun, it is “a factory that makes cars”, not just one car. Similarly, “a truck driver” is a person who drives trucks for a living, not necessarily always the same truck (a person who owns and drives a truck is not necessarily a truck driver). Similarly, a “toothbrush” is not intended to brush just one tooth, or a “footstool” to support just one foot. There are hundreds of such combinations where the meaning of the first noun could be interpreted as plural but where the form of this noun is singular. About the only time the first noun could be plural is if the noun itself is normally used as a plural, like “people”.

  11. parvomagnus says

    Bruce, I think that’s a problematic analysis. Lack of inflection is only a property of adjectives; it doesn’t extend to all other words or phrases that serve as modifiers – if it did, the genitive as a whole would be obsolete, since the construction nearly always serves as a modifier. And it doesn’t hold true for variations on the phrase – you might say “a two hour drive from here”, but also (for me, at least) “it’s two hour’s drive from here”. Sans article, the genitive becomes necessary.
    Also, you might say “fifty miles’ worth of wire” (though, strangely, no one on the internet seems to have had cause yet, sez google). I’m with marie-lucie and stephen – I’d guess it’s good ole-fashioned Germanic (or Greek, Sanskrit…) words-right-up-next-to-each-other-mashing.
    I could swear I’ve heard, even said, stuff like “It’s about six foot off the ground”. Google turns up decent numbers for “about * foot tall”, though the 4th hit discusses the construction’s propriety, and the last 200k hits might all be about things one foot tall. Maybe “X feet tall”, though not prestigious, is enough of a stock phrase to turn up over and over. Other variations don’t seem to have as many hits.

  12. parvomagnus says

    Of course, the English ‘genitive’ descendant’s not really a standard inflection. “Fifty miles’ worth” does have a plural though. There’s not really a good way to use a normal plural as a modifier that I can think of, but the word compounding above vastly predates our uninflected adjectives nonetheless.

  13. Plural endings are sometimes retained in modifiers when the plural has a different meaning from the singular, as in “arms control” or “singles club”. Maybe that’s what’s going on in British phrases like “drugs cartel”, where Americans would say “drug cartel”.

  14. British: “maths book”
    Just my two cents worth. (Is there an apostrophe after that?)

  15. Nijma: red herring, since “maths” is the name of the subject, and is treated as singular (“Maths is a boring subject”, not *”Maths are a boring subject/??are boring subjects”).
    I presume Americans similarly say “physics book”, not ?”physic book” — the name of the subject is “physics”.

  16. michael farris says

    I do have the impression (vague but there) that British usage allows plurals in this kind of construction more easily than American. “Drugs laws” is one example (can ‘drug’ be singular in British?) but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard others which have inconveniently decided to flee my memory for the moment.
    Related obliquely is ‘drink driving’ which just sounds bizarre to me, like driving around in a big martini.

  17. PN: physics
    This looks like KCinDC’s example of a modifier whose plural meaning is different from the singular. A “physic” is a medicine; “physics” is a branch of science. A “physic book” would be a book of home remedies and concoctions.
    parvomagnus: Fifty miles’ worth
    Then it’s two cents worth. But maybe “two cents worth of [opinion]”? Is “worth” a noun here or is it some kind of connector to an understood object.
    But wait, it’s possessive, maybe even possessive singular. After all you would say “one mile’s worth” and “one cent’s worth”. Maybe it’s really “two cent’s worth” and “fifty mile’s worth”.
    Now this is a bit of a leap, but jump with me here. Maybe the “maths book” is really a singular possessive “math’s book” that has somewhere lost its apostrophe. I mean, look what the Brits have done with abbreviations like Mr.–they seem to enjoy ditching punctuation.

  18. Michael Farris:
    BBC News “drugs Czar”. There’s a lot more like this:

  19. Bruce Balden says

    In the sentence “it’s two-hours’ drive from here”, “two-hour” is functioning a noun phrase, and therefore can take the possessive (genitive) AND PLURAL (note my punctuation). In the nearly identical sentence “it’s a two-hour drive”, it it an adjectival phrase. And yes this means the syntactic function of phrases is context dependent, but we already knew that. As I mentioned earlier, English is (in)famous for having a malleable syntax in this way.
    Note that in many languages adjectives are inflected for number but we can’t consult those languages (the ones I know at least) because they don’t allow English’s free-form adjectival phrases, although German might collapse the entire phrase into one of its famously long compound words, which have a similar syntactic function to English’s nominal and adjectival phrases.

  20. A.J.P. Crown says

    There was a television soap opera called ‘Six Feet Under’ that is translated, when advertised on Norwegian tv, as ‘Sex Foot Under‘. I thought you’d like that (six is sex in Norwegian). It really ought to have been called ‘Six Foot Under’ in the original, but I guess someone was nervous that ‘Foot’ must be an incorrect, slangy usage.
    Michael’s martini reminded me that Americans say ‘doctor bills’ using ‘doctor’ as an adjective, I suppose, whereas I would normally say ‘doctors’ bills’. Of course before Margaret Thatcher’s lot, they didn’t have doctor bills in Britain, so it was moot.

  21. michael farris says

    “Sex Foot Under” That’s got to be the stupidest ‘translation’ ever.
    Anyway, here’ my provisional analysis:
    six feet under makes sense because there’s no noun.
    six feet
    six feet where?
    six feet under.
    but ‘a six foot deep hole’
    It’s more or less the same as
    50 feet in the air
    a 50 foot drop.
    The forms with the singular foot are noun phrases while the forms with plurals are locational.
    That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
    In Polish, “Six Feet Under” was Sześć stóp pod ziemią (lit: six feet under the earth/underground)

  22. A.J.P. Crown says

    It’s a fine translation, Michael, it’s just, you know, funny. In Norwegian, sex is ‘six’ and et fot is ‘a foot’, but neuter one-syllable nouns aren’t inflected as plurals: et hus > 2 hus; et fot > 2 fot.

  23. A.J.P. Crown says

    Oh, and I see I spelled ‘fot’ wrong in Norwegian, the first time.

  24. michael farris says

    I admit that “Sex Foot Under” has a certain ring to it and seeing it by itself would make me wonder what kind of movie it could be. Also somehow (although it’s the Scandinavian language I can read best, which isn’t saying much) I’d forgotten/missed Norwegian ‘under’. So ‘sex fot under’ isn’t so bad.
    sidenote: for many years I thought “A clockwork orange” was a meaningless title, some random arrangment of words. It wasn’t until I saw the Polish translation “Mechaniczna pomarańcza” (lit: Mechanical orange) that I realized it was supposed to mean something. Sometime after I heard expressions like ‘clockwork mouse’ (toy mouse) and realized that was a more or less common word in Britain. IME in the US it exists only the expression ‘like clockwork’.

  25. A.J.P. Crown says

    While we’re on the subject, ‘inch’ is tomme in Norwegian, presumably because the old (or approximate) way to measure an inch is to use the distance between the last joint and the tip of your thumb.
    There are people who feel there are advantages in using human proportions for architectural dimensioning and that the feet-and-inches system is therefore better than metric. I’ve never found this to be the case, myself.
    Corbusier and someone else worked out a metric system based on human proportion, called the Modulor. The Wiki article doesn’t mention anyone but Corb inventing it; this always happens with him — he took all the credit for all the furniture too, even though it was actually designed by a woman called Charlotte Perriand.. but I see I’m digressing.

  26. A.J.P. Crown says

    Yes, ‘clockwork’ is how that kind of mechanism is described in Britain.
    ‘A Clockwork Orange’ comes from an expression that was used in the Sixties, ‘(He’s as) queer as a clockwork orange’, meaning ‘he’s (overtly, or well-known to be) gay’ but coming from a deliberately exaggerated simile for something ‘queer’, or unusual. ‘Queer as a chocolate frog’ was another such expression.

  27. can ‘drug’ be singular in British?
    Yes. “I take a drug for heart problems”, implies a specific pharmaceutical (of which you probably can’t remember the generic name, but I digress ..), but like me, you may take several (different) drugs regularly.
    I’ve heard “two mile down the road” many times in Ireland. It’s mostly a country (i.e. non-city) thing, and generally confined to older people, but not exclusively.
    In southern England, at least, I believe it would always be “two miles”. “Two mile down” sounds like American usage to me, which may of course derive from Ireland.
    Five feet tall or five foot tall seem to me to be interchangeable here.

  28. michael farris says

    “Queer as a three dollar bill” is an old American expression. It doesn’t necessarily just mean (or primarily) gay though and can be used about a suspected fraud.

  29. Bruce:

    In the nearly identical sentence “it’s a two-hour drive”, it it an adjectival phrase. And yes this means the syntactic function of phrases is context dependent, but we already knew that.

    What’s crucial here is that the structures under discussion aren’t phrases, they’re compound words. Fifty-mile, two-hour and similar pre-nominal quantity constructions aren’t adjective phrases, they’re compound adjectives (or compound modifiers of some sort, anyway). Adjective phrases are headed by adjectives — very proud, heartily sick of the whole business — and those quantity constructions don’t have one. You can see that they’re compounds if you take the example of X year(s) old. Used predicatively, this is a phrase:
    “The woman is seventy years old.”
    Used attributively, it’s a compound, since it has to fill a syntactic slot for a single word:
    “a witty seventy-year-old woman”.
    This is reflected in the stress pattern: in the predicative structure, each of the three words has its own lexical stress, but in the attributive structure there’s only one primary stress, on the appropriate syllable of the number (SEVenty in this case) — just as if the whole thing was a single word. (It’s also reflected in the hyphenation, but obviously there’s more variation in usage there.)
    The use of singulars in these pre-nominal structures is explained by the fact that English prefers stem forms in compounds (like the various examples cited above – toothbrush, car factory etc.), even if semantically equivalent phrases require plurals. There are similar alternations with things like “an X-foot-tall bear” vs “the bear is X feet tall”. And note that, since about isn’t happy in attributive constructions (??”an about seven-foot-tall bear”), parvomagnus’s search for “about * foot tall” will turn up mostly predicative uses, where “feet” is more likely — 599,000 to 141,000, in fact.

  30. Edward Scissorhands, not Scissorshands. Hmm. Do we speak of a “scissors factory”, or a “scissor factory”? I’d have thought “scissors factory”. A Google search will be even less reliable than usual given the great number of such factories in China, described in Chinglish on the web. Compare “pliers manufacturer”, etc.
    Shakespeare has a bellows mender in Midsummer Night’s Dream; Poe has one also, and so does Butler. “Bellow mender” sounds wrong, and is poorly represented on the web. Surely we would think “scissors sharpener” to be comparable, and to dominate; but “scissor sharpener” seems to be about equally represented. I suppose the adjacent sibilants cloud the matter.
    We do say “pincer movement”, not usually “pincers movement” – although that too is found often enough with Google.
    There is also Three-Dog Night; but we would not ask: “Which gospels include the Three Wise Man story?” Nor would we speak of a “three-wise-monkey analogy”.

  31. It really ought to have been called ‘Six Foot Under’ in the original
    No, that would sound very strange in America. The old formation with the singular is extremely marginal, and I’m sure most Americans have never heard it.
    The use of singulars in these pre-nominal structures is explained by the fact that English prefers stem forms in compounds (like the various examples cited above – toothbrush, car factory etc.), even if semantically equivalent phrases require plurals.
    Thanks, that’s an excellent formulation!

  32. Regarding US/empire differences, I could swear I’ve heard “hundred-meters freestyle” in Australia, though that could have been “hundred-meter’s freestyle”. I can’t imagine an American saying anything but “hundred-meter freestyle”. I’d be interested in any non-American comments on what sounds right with that one.
    I definitely agree that non-US usage seems to allow the plural forms more: “drugs war” vs “drug war” etc. But I have seen surprising US examples. For instance, in the NY Times has appeared “…for wearing a T-shirt on the medals stand” (Google knows about it), which seems wrong to me, an American. But since “medals stand” and “medal stand” are pronounced almost identically, it could be a mistake, in that the writer would renege after reconsideration.

  33. One more thing, when I lived on the South Side of Chicago several years ago, a woman who worked behind the register at the refectory would never pluralize “cent”. So, “five dollars and fifty cent”, for example. Soon after that 50 Cent, = Curits James Jackson III, came along. It seems like something could be drawn from that, but I’m not sure what.

  34. Note in passing about physic/physics… Someone who does metaphysics is a metaphysician, not a metaphysicist.

  35. Speaking of stress, it seems there’s a British tendency to stress the unit in phrases like “five miles away”, which I’ve never understood. Expanding phrases like “two days” to “two days’ time” seems to be more common in British English than American as well.

  36. mollymooly says

    “hundred-meters freestyle” sounds right to me, with “freestyle” as parenthetic. Try this: “he won the hundred metres freestyle, and came second in the two hundred metres.”
    A person has a “drug problem” if they’re only addicted to one drug; a country will have a “drugs problem” if drugs are widespread.
    An interesting UK/US difference is with “sport(s)”. By default this is a singular mass noun in UK, a plural count noun in US. However, I never hear the singular used attributively in UK: “sports news”, “sports car”, etc. (Google throws up “sport star” but that looks wrong wrong wrong to me.) Most are also plural in US too, but I do notice “sport coat”. And is the S in SUV singular or plural?

  37. When you find a noun-noun compound where the first element is a regular plural (irregular plurals are known to be more common, probably because they aren’t analyzable), send it to Steven Pinker so he can put it on his exceptions list.
    (Irregular plurals are irregular in ways beyond the merely morphological: “a cottage at the foot of the mountain” is fine, but “two cottages at the feet of the mountains” is not.)

  38. In a copyediting course I took many years ago, I was taught that in English, attributive nouns—nouns used as adjectives—are normally singular. Exceptions occur when a singular attributive noun would lead to confusion: an antiques shop sells antiques, but an antique shop might itself be very old.

  39. A.J.P. Crown says

    No, that’s just silly. Nobody’s going to think ‘an antique shop’ refers to the age of the shop. Besides, ‘antiques shop’ is much harder to say when you’re drunk.
    Noetica, you say — in England, at least, — ‘a (one) bellows’, or ‘a pair of bellows’, but never ‘a bellow’, unless you mean the noise of a bull. Perhaps you can sharpen one scissor of a pair, I don’t know.

  40. marie-lucie says

    NIjma: physics, etc: When was the last time you took a physic? to me it sounds like something out of the 18th century. I am not sure why physics, mathematics, linguistics have an s at the end, but those are treated like mass nouns, sometimes singular (physics is very interesting) and sometimes plural (the mathematics of this demonstration are very complex), though always with an s. Maths as an abbreviation of mathematics sounds British, in North America it is math.
    Noetica: bellows is always plural in form, that’s the reason for bellows mender.
    Edward Scissorhands is interesting, since normally the word scissors would be kept plural, but perhaps the exception comes from the fact that it would be strange to have a plural indication within a name (and also scissorshands might suggest a genitive interpretation: that the hands are parts of scissors, instead of the opposite).
    we would not ask: “Which gospels include the Three Wise Man story?” Nor would we speak of a “three-wise-monkey analogy”.
    Here Three Wise Men and three wise monkeys are considered a unit, corresponding to a single word, and so cannot be changed: The Three Wise Men are … would refer to the individual characters, not to their legend.
    James: on the medals stand: for many Americans, medal and metal would sound the same, so medal stand could be misunderstood as metal stand rather than the place where medal winners would stand.
    JC: “a cottage at the foot of the mountain” is fine, but “two cottages at the feet of the mountains” is not.
    I am not sure that this is because of the “irregular” plural. I would guess it is because “two cottages” are assumed to be close together, or at least in the same general area, so it is jarring to see the phrase in the same sentence as “the mountains” which cannot by their nature be very close together. But if you were telling a tale in which you first described two mountains, a subsequent reference to “two cottages at the feet of the mountains” would be more acceptable (although “each at the foot of a mountain” would sound better).
    artie: You must be in Britain, in “younger” countries no shops would be that old, so shops that sell antiques can be called “antique shops”.

  41. A.J.P. Crown says

    Marie-lucie, you can’t talk about the feet of the mountains, it sounds like a hallucination. They have one foot, but many peaks.

  42. An interesting UK/US difference is with “sport(s)”. By default this is a singular mass noun in UK, a plural count noun in US.
    Not sure this is true, actually; I’d say it can be plural in UK as well. Certainly you’d talk about “school sports day”, “sports field”, “sports equipment” and so on.
    Victorian writers (in the UK and I think the US as well) used to use “million” in the plural – “a population of three millions” for example.

  43. Sorry, misread – I see you note that it’s plural attributively. I’d say, though, that it’s plural at other times: “I am very good at sports” sounds better to my UK ear than “I am very good at sport”.

  44. marie-lucie says

    If you say so, AJP. I won’t try to write the story about the two cottages and the two mountains (of course a single mountain with many peaks has only one foot, but here there were two mountains).
    But I don’t think it has to do with the foot/feet “irregular” singular/plural correspondence, more about the metaphorical use of a body part for a part of a very different object: perhaps the plural meaning is more likely to be understood literally in this case? Conversely, take tooth/teeth: a saw has teeth, but you can still talk about a single tooth of a saw (for instance, if one is broken or bent), or am I mistaken?

  45. “Six Foot” v. Six Feet” under: Google says 100-to-1 the former. At least half the references seem to be specifically to the HBO film or spinoffs of it, though, but that would leave it about 50-1.

  46. Earlier we have discussed here “pants” and “The crowd are loving it”.
    IIRC the latter is a vulgarism somewhat specific to sportscasters, and probably was picked up by Monty Python for their Thomas Hardy skit for that reason.
    I definitely heard a lifelong clothing salesman say something like “This pant is more durable than that one”, ca. 1960 in Wobegon.

  47. mollymooly says

    “I am very good at sports” sounds better to my UK ear than “I am very good at sport”.
    To my Irish ear, there is a slight difference: the former suggests I have a proven skill in multiple sports; the latter that I have a generic aptitude which might be applied to any sport.

  48. “Sex Fot Under” That’s got to be the stupidest ‘translation’ ever.
    I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned yet the Danish name for that giant gorilla, Kong King (“Kong” being the Danish for “king”, of course …)

  49. John Emerson: “The crowd are loving it” is fine for me. Isn’t this a recognised transatlantic shibboleth that applies to all collective nouns? Having said that, though, would you want to rephrase “The crowd have started fighting among themselves”?
    “This pant is more durable” – haven’t heard that, but you’ll definitely hear “this jean” in contexts like that, around here. I’ve heard “They’re a very good jean.”
    Second mollymooly’s intuitions about “very good at sport/sports”.

  50. A.J.P. Crown says

    m-l:If you say so, AJP
    As you know, I’m not exactly infallible.
    I won’t try to write the story about the two cottages and the two mountains
    Oh, go on.
    you can still talk about a single tooth of a saw (for instance, if one is broken or bent), or am I mistaken?
    No, that’s right.
    more about the metaphorical use of a body part for a part of a very different object
    That sounds right. I think you’d talk about the ‘head’ rather than ‘heads’ with a plural …but I can’t think of an example.
    Molly:To my Irish ear, …the former suggests I have a proven skill in multiple sports; the latter that I have a generic aptitude which might be applied to any sport.
    That’s a fine distinction, Molly. You must have good hearing.

  51. so he can put it on his exceptions list.
    I see what you did there.

  52. A.J.P. Crown says

    Sorry, but there’s a topical old joke about a bartender who has a tiny man sitting on the bar, beautifully playing a tiny piano. The man was the result of a wish granted to the bartender by a fairy. The bartender says ‘Only she must have been a bit deaf, because I’m sure I didn’t ask for a twelve-inch pianist.’

  53. re: feet vs. foot
    I think the relevant idiom is ‘buried six feet under’. I believe that ‘buried six foot under’ is less common. I don’t have mad google skilz, but ‘buried six feet under’ returns more results.

  54. This query had already attracted a huge mass of answers before I saw it, so I’ll content myself with with saying that for my money Bruce Balden provided a fully satisfying answer at No. 2 in the series: adjectives in English are invariant. What other explanation to we need?

  55. “Six Foot” v. Six Feet” under: Google says 100-to-1 the LATTER. At least half of these references seem to be specifically to the HBO film or spinoffs of it, though, but that would leave it about 50-1.
    Fuck me.

  56. A.J.P. Crown says

    Do more people say feet? Anyway, Language was wrong when he said nobody says foot, because you and I say it (and him too, most likely). And Martin, up there somewhere.
    I bet you tons more people say foot than feet in Britain, but you can’t get hits on that.

  57. A.J.P. Crown says

    Plus, you wouldn’t want to be associated with Britain.
    Ok. Ireland, then.

  58. Fuck me.
    Thank you, John Emerson. We’ll reserve our options.
    Krôn and Marie-Lucie:
    Yes, I am well aware that bellows works differently from scissors in that one rarely sees a bellow in modern English. OED: “the plur. belwes, belowes, bellows became established in 16th c. as the literary form”. OED also says:

    In later times bellows has often been construed as a sing., ‘a bellows,’ and occasionally has even received a second plural inflexion, bellowses, which is common in the dialects; cf. ‘a gallows,’ and obs. or dial. pl. gallowses.

    My theme, like everyone else’s, is the present fluidity of these things. The only half-relevant difference between bellows (along with gallows) and scissors, pants, etc. is that it “correctly” never has the s stripped away when it functions as a simple noun. OED on gallows, by the way:

    In OE. the sing. galȝa and the pl. galȝan are both used for ‘a gallows’, the pl. having reference presumably to the two posts of which the apparatus mainly consisted. Occasional examples of the sing. form occur in ME., and even down to the 17th c.; but from the 13th c. onwards the plural galwes and its later phonetic representatives have been the prevailing forms. So far as our material shows, Caxton is the first writer to speak of ‘a gallows’, though he also uses the older expression ‘a pair of gallows’; but it is, of course, possible that the pl. form was sometimes treated as a sing. much earlier. From the 16th c. gallows has been (exc. arch. in ‘pair of gallows’) used as a sing., with a new plural gallowses; the latter, though perh. not strictly obsolete, is now seldom used; the formation is felt to be somewhat uncouth, so that the use of the word in the plural is commonly evaded.

    Are there any others closely similar to bellows and gallows? Scissors, shears, and the like are indeed close. OED records a scissors but not a scissor; OED has shear as a headword but not shears, and records both a shear and a shears. It’s all rather mercurial.

  59. Marie-Lucie:
    Yes, I agree with you about Three Wise Men and Monkeys. Treated as a unit. But sometimes the integrity of such a unit is violated, especially when it includes an article:

    I attended The Doors‘ last concert.


    A Doors concert I once attended.


  60. Victorian writers (in the UK and I think the US as well) used to use “million” in the plural – “a population of three millions” for example.
    The convention here (still used in some places) is to use it when millions is used to represent population, as you’ve rightly said. So a writer who would pen your example sentence might also say “forty million houses”.

  61. mollymooly says

    “That’s a fine distinction, Molly. You must have good hearing.”
    If you hear a non-idiomatic form, and you assume it’s not a dialect difference but rather a deliberate avoidance of the unmarked form, then you try to ascribe some difference of meaning to the difference of form. Hence the non-idiomatic “I am very good at sports” must mean something different from the usual “I am very good at sport”, even if I have to invent the difference.

  62. rootlesscosmo says

    Do we speak of a “scissors factory”, or a “scissor factory”?
    “Pants presser” used to be a job title.

  63. @nijma: “Pants presser” used to be a job title.
    I would go with “six feet under” and either “six foot tall” or “six feet tall”. Over six feet has to be “six foot one” etc.
    I too will take a rain check on Mr. Emerson’s generous offer.

  64. marie-lucie says

    Noetica: The Doors’ concert – A Doors concert: perhaps I was a little too fast in including the article as always part of the title, but if we assume that the article is marginal, the rest of the phrase cannot be further modified, so Doors cannot be a singular here, unlike for instance in door jamb or door mat or even door prize. Nor could you replace “the” by another word, as in some Doors. At least that is the way it seems to me.

  65. Marie-Lucie:
    I wonder. Try this:

    These Doors are not as dazzling as the old line-up. The old Doors had a superb drummer. Still, The Doors will always be The Doors, for me.


  66. A.J.P. Crown says

    Are there any others closely similar to bellows and gallows?
    Well, going in the opposite direction, ‘a pair of compasses’ is more often called a compass, nowadays. I’ve never heard ‘a compasses’, though, and I expect that’s because it already ends in S.

  67. (Apologies for duplicate idea if someone’s made a similar comment already; I haven’t read all the comments..)
    Names of days (and probably any number of other things) show a similar pattern: Saint Phil’s day (with “possessive” morphology), but Return of Saint Phil day. (*”Saint Phil day”, *”Return of Saint Phil’s day”, in the intended meanings.)
    This might just be because when you have an entire phrase that names the day, it’s treated as one entity and doesn’t require special morphology to show that it modifies what follows (like the whole concatenating-words-together-to-make-a-name-for-something thing).
    Obviously not the same thing, but seems parallel to me, fwiw.

  68. Why (and where and when) would St. Phil return? Or does just the day return.
    A Dead concert would be better than a Doors concert. Especially if Garcia was playing.

  69. marie-lucie says

    Noetica, I give up! perhaps you could check with the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Pullum and Huddleston. Pullum used to be a pianist in a rock band.

  70. A.J.P. Crown says

    The Ram Jam Band. To be precise, I think he was the keyboard player.

  71. marie-lucie says

    Yes, AJP, the instrument was probably not a real piano, but something more portable and versatile (though not sounding as good on its own).

  72. Marie-Lucie: The feet of the mountains is indeed impossible, though the teeth of the saws is fine, as is the roots of the mountains.. But that’s my point: irregular nouns are irregular in all sorts of ways, including just how they can be used metaphorically or otherwise. The metaphor mouse for the computer pointing device is perfectly transparent, much more so than foot for mountains, and yet anglophones are intriguingly unwilling to use it in the plural, some going so far as to say mouses or to reword themselves to avoid the need for a plural form. We see no such effect with other computer metaphors like files, windows, or monitors.
    And à propos des Portes, Pinker mentions this very group in one of his examples of irregularity, of verbs this time: I really dig The Doors, no problem, but Back in the Sixties I really dug the Doors sounds unpleasantly literal.
    Hat: Exceptions list is Pinker’s joke rather than mine, but he does discuss such forms (which include the Nixonian enemies list) and points out that these lists contain specific exceptions or enemies, unlike the ordinary compound enemy force, where we don’t care exactly who the enemies are, or the banking term exception processing, which is the handling of all exceptions whatsoever, regardless of their nature.
    I don’t think the pluralia tantum forms like scissors, or their former buddies like news (which is now firmly singular despite its history) really enter into this, except as curiosities. Not that curiosities are a bad thing, no, not at all….
    All: I see that written English is acquiring a new vocative inflection written @. What I don’t know is whether it is pronounced O, as in the old days (“A mouse — of a mouse — to a mouse — a mouse — O mouse!”, per Lewis Carroll), or is silent, or what. Certainly at is not an adequate reading; whatever may be the case elsewhere, here at Language Hat we do not talk at one another. And a Good Thing Too.

  73. marie-lucie says

    JC, thank you for your comment, but I am still not convinced that the strangeness of the feet of the mountains is due to the plural being irregular, rather than sounding too literal since there is little occasion to use it in a metaphorical context (where the singular is much more commonly used).
    Maybe that is also why “I dug the Doors” (not a plural) sounds weird, because “to dig” meaning “to like” or “to understand” is normally used in the present tense, while in the literal meaning it is very common in the past tense (“we dug a trench”). The two meanings are so different that one would expect the new “to dig” to receive a past tense of its own, which would be “digged” since new verbs invariably form their past tense with -ed (but since “dig” in this meaning does not refer to a true action but to a feeling or thought, “I used to dig the Doors” is much more likely).
    About @: personally, I don’t think of it as a pronounceable vocative, only as a typographical marker, like “>” starting each line in a reply to a previous email.

  74. About @: personally, I don’t think of it as a pronounceable vocative, only as a typographical marker
    I agree, and I would be extremely surprised if it turned out anyone pronounced it “O.”

  75. I think “I dug the Doors” is perfectly acceptable – “Man, back in those days I really dug the Doors, you know?”
    – Could you dig it man?
    – Yeah, I really dug it.
    However, since no one under 45 uses the word “dig” in that sense without either trying to convey some kind of hipster irony or willful identification with hippie culture I could be misleading myself.

  76. A.J.P. Crown says

    The real problem with ‘I dug The Doors’, even a nerdy guy like Pinker should have the general knowledge to know (he’s the appropriate age), is that it is an anachronism for talking about late-sixties white music, even in retrospect. No Doors fan would have been caught dead ‘digging‘ anything — except perhaps digging Morrison up out of Père Lachaise.

  77. A.J.P. Crown says

    It’s got nothing to do with being “under 45”, Vanya, you ageist pig.

  78. A.J.P. Crown says

    You’re right about ‘dug’, though, there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m sure Language can corroborate this, he knows about jazz.

  79. A.J.P. Crown says

    On a different topic, I was wondering if anyone here saw Ingmar Bergman’s production of Yukio Mishima’s play Mme de Sade when it was put on in New York, in 1995, in Swedish, with headphone translations for the non-Swedes in the audience?

  80. Mere semantic shift isn’t enough to create a new verb in m-l’s sense: broadcast ‘transmit by radio or television’ has had a near-total semantic shift from its ancestor broadcast ‘scatter seeds, but its preterite and plural forms remain broadcast, to say nothing of the analogous case of do ‘have sex with’.
    Now fly out ‘hit a baseball that is caught, putting the subject out’ is truly a new verb, because it’s not directly from the verb fly, but from the noun fly ‘a ball so hit’, so it does get the regular preterite and participle flied out.
    As for @, the notion that it’s pronounced ‘O’ was meant as a joke, of course. But I do find it irritating: it’s too prominent typographically, it already has a standard reading as ‘at’, and above all, “@Hat:” means exactly the same as “Hat:”, so why bother?

  81. marie-lucie says

    JC: Mere semantic shift isn’t enough to create a new verb in m-l’s sense
    I didn’t mean that semantic shift would necessarily create a new verb or form of the verb, (or, for nouns, a new form of the plural), only that there is a general tendency in this direction, so that the different meaning could be enough to justify the creation of a new, more regular form (as in the mice/mouses case). Another example of this is when a noun with an irregular plural becomes part of a compound which has a different meaning overall, and the plural of the compound is regular (as in cloverleafs for a type of road intersection, as opposed to actual clover leaves).
    The question of @ to mean “this comment is directed at …“seems to be one of style: it is not used on this blog, but it is on some others (eg language log which is more formal than LH), and if a style is adopted by enough commenters in one blog it tends to spread.

  82. eg language log which is more formal than LH
    I find LL to be less formal. They use more conversational rather than written English in the posts and it has a flavor of trendiness that appeals to a particular generational group. I find Hat’s prose to be more formal, more global, more accessible, but maybe that’s just me. Subconsciously he’s got me convinced that he grew up just down the road from where I did and his language prejudices and usages are *just like* mine, even though subjectively I know that’s not true.
    The commenters are a different story. LL is more like a staff meeting, LH is more like joining a table in the cafeteria.

  83. I saw Jerry Garcia in concert back when he was alive and really dug it. If he were to play now it would be a dead concert as opposed to a Dead concert. (singular dead/plural Dead)
    If you want to buy a computer mouse you go to the section labeled “mice”. I really dig the laser mice. I think they’re really groovy, so don’t be hating on mice.

  84. subjectively=>objectively
    unless it was a fruedian slip

  85. freudian
    where’s the coffee?

  86. On second thought, I don’t think you could have “dug” the Grateful Dead–it really wasn’t that kind of a band. You could have dug the Mamas and the Papas though.

  87. A.J.P. Crown says

    I find LL to be less formal.
    If you make an off-topic comment there, Nij, Arnold Zwicky will make you go and stand in the corner until after class.

  88. Like I said, Kron, it’s a staff meeting, and a staff meeting of a place where I don’t work. At a staff meeting people act stuffy in order to advance their careers then try to finish on time so they can go home. They don’t have fun. Hat has his own idiosyncrasies to be sure, but you don’t see him doing the goofy stuff they do.

  89. marie-lucie says

    If you make an off-topic comment there, Nij, Arnold Zwicky will make you go and stand in the corner until after class.
    Arnold Zwicky goes out right after his lecture (even if the lecture is very casual) and does not want to hear any comments, whether on or off topic.
    Nijma, I was referring to the tone among the commenters rather than the original posters. But I don’t feel that coming here is like meeting in the cafeteria – it is casual, but not that casual.

  90. I think the LL tone depends on who the OP is. I’m someone who is certainly not on staff — okay, I was invited to post once, but I declined as I felt it would set a bad precedent. (I did send a long quotation from a Tolkien essay which became a guest post, though; probably the only posthumous guest post ever.)
    Nevertheless, I feel perfectly comfortable posting a comment to a myl posting, but then I’ve been bombarding him with email for years. I used to send gkp a fair amount of email too, but he’s been more selective about leaving comments on (to be fair, he’s much more of a polemicist anyhow, and probably doesn’t want to deal with counter-polemicists who know less than he’s forgotten, or however that goes). No problem with the, ahem, younger members either.
    But LH-the-blog is a community. That’s a whole different thing.

  91. marie-lucie says

    JC, congratulations on being invited to post on the LL blog! That blog is partly a teaching blog – its goal is to inform the public about linguistics through comments on various current manifestations of language, and that is why they received an award from the Linguistic Society of America a few months ago. This teaching purpose is why some of the presenters either disallow comments altogether or allow them only some of the time (gkp’s original understanding was that allowing responses from the public would be useful in so far as it would provide examples for the linguists’ own research). This narrow purpose makes it different from LH where our host’s interests are much wider and not so technical, and he is also glad to know (most) everyone who cares to participate. I agree that here is a community whose members enjoy interacting with each other around interesting topics, rather than a bunch of students who attend lectures but don’t necessarily get to know each other or share anything outside of those lectures, let alone sharing with the prof.

  92. I don’t feel that coming here is like meeting in the cafeteria – it is casual, but not that casual.
    My cafeteria situation might be a little different since I eat with my students, especially when I’m not at the regular building. They don’t speak my language either, so I have to speak theirs as best I can. During breaks we end up talking about cultural stuff like mariachis or how to write a note in English for their child’s teacher, which I consider to be part of language acquisition. When I go into the office I suppose the talk in the staff room is more casual–depending on who is there it tends to be more techie computer.

  93. A.J.P. Crown says

    I like the young guys, Ben Zimmer and Bill Poser, as well as Geoff Pullum and that guy Victor. The rest are awful.

  94. With all due respect, M-L, you are not very casual but Kruunu, myself, and several others not to be named are. Though they can volunteer if they so wish.

  95. marie-lucie says

    JE, I know I am not very casual compared to some of you guys, but I was talking about the general atmosphere. I hope I don’t sound too stuffy.

  96. LH has an enormously broader range. It’s about language, linguistics, literature, culture, and history, with a sort of proviso that every comment must have some kind of hook to a language question.
    And jokes. It’s about jokes, too.

  97. I think of LH as having a foreground program and a background program. When there is a current linguistics chew toy, the talk is very focused and on topic; when the immediate discussion winds down, there is a background playful poking at the information to see what latent bits can be stirred up or whose memory can be jogged. Sometimes you can see something more clearly when you look away for a moment.
    Of course the commenters here have a huge range of interests and a lot of them overlap with mine. This week I’ve gotten sucked into an Israel/Palestine poop flinging contest elsewhere, but usually I follow the off topic comments and links carefully, and find that even if I am not initially interested in something, I can see it differently through the eyes of someone who does enjoy it or have a deep curiosity about it.
    I suspect that if I was commenting under my own name I would be a bit more restrained.

  98. A.J.P. Crown says

    One thing is that our Language just knows more than the Log People. They don’t know anything about literature. After Language Hat, the language blog I’d recommend first is Conrad’s Varieties of Unreligious Experience. Language Log is too studenty for my taste. Also I get very bored with Sunday comics.

  99. I don’t want to badmouth any one else’s blog, heaven knows mine is a bit of a garage sale. Enough to say I don’t read LL, except for “that guy Victor” who isn’t enough to get me to look at it with any regularity. I can’t get into Conrad either, sorry, I know everyone here loves him. Maybe it’s the literature angle. My literature detector is stuck on Nancy Drew. Maybe if I lurk here long enough that door will open too. Or not. Nancy Drew is not a bad place to be.
    I wish AJP would start a blog, even if it’s just a home page with a blogroll. Now that one I would subscribe to. There are any number of free blogging options; some of them take less than 5 minutes to set up.

  100. But I don’t feel that coming here is like meeting in the cafeteria – it is casual, but not that casual.
    Damn right. No shirt, no shoes, no service!
    I wish AJP would start a blog
    Hear, hear.

  101. No shirt, no shoes, no service!
    *looks for shoes*

  102. marie-lucie says

    But I don’t feel that coming here is like meeting in the cafeteria ….
    – Damn right. No shirt, no shoes, no service!
    I didn’t mean it quite that way. Meeting in the cafeteria suggests to me a student cafeteria – a large, noisy place where people are coming and going all the time, leave the tables messy, and even if you regularly meet friends in one corner you can’t really have a good conversation.

  103. Not noisy? You should hear the mariachi tuba upstairs. The guy says he pays for his place and can do whatever he wants, even if it shakes the pictures off of my walls. I wonder how how he would like it if I had a sudden spiritual urge to listen to Koran and wanted to do it with my 80 watts per channel? I just feel sorry for the one in the back who works third shift.

  104. marie-lucie says

    Nijma, is the tuba player the owner, or a renter? isn’t there a bylaw or similar regulation in the lease (if you have one) about limits to the amount of noise people can make? or at least restrain the noise to some hours of the day? on the other hand, when your other neighbour is away on third shift, you could arrange to play something full blast (with industrial ear protectors on), or would that just encourage the tuba guy to make even more noise?

  105. Tubas are a protected instrument because of the worldwide shortage.
    Also, I think that the tuba player is actually AJP wearing his subdued but elegant mariachi pants.

  106. Only the sound of the tuba base line travels within the building, and a powerful baseline it is. I thought it was a live tuba player. But outside the building the entire mariachi effect can be noted.
    I had to play about 30 minutes of Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al Sodais doing Koran recitation to re-establish inner serenity. On my Logitech Z-2300 speakers. “Unlike those on many 2.1 setups, the Z-2300’s subwoofer seemed capable of providing stellar sound at both moderate and extreme bass levels.” I feel much better now.
    For anyone in the mood for Koran recitation, here is a tutorial with al-Corsi aya.

  107. A.J.P. Crown says

    I’m all for a resumption of tuba hunting. I abhor their fat little brass-bellied farts

  108. A.J.P. Crown says

    Especially coming from such successful bloggers it’s very nice of you to say you want me to start a blog. What you don’t know is that I am very, very lazy and it’s all I can do to keep working on my goat book. Commenting is like taking a cigarette break in my old smoking days, I can do it quick and then go back to work — in theory, at least.

  109. marie-lucie says

    Where would you bloggers be if everyone started their own blog? You need readers, readers need you. Many people think that if they can do something (and are good at it), everyone can (and should want to) do the same. For instance, writers will counsel you to write your autobiography or make a story or poem from some event that happened to you, songwriters think you should write songs, etc. Each to their own! Personally, I have never been a smoker, and I don’t keep goats or other animals, but otherwise I could say the same thing as AJP (except, of course, for the inimitable style).

  110. A.J.P. Crown says

    That’s right, Marie-Lucie, you have your own inimitable style. Not only that, like nearly all linguists you write well.

  111. marie-lucie says

    AJP, of course I meant *your* inimitable style. You will make me blush.

  112. I can testify that it’s very, very difficult to run a good blog. You have to post very regularly on topics different enough not to be monotonous and similar enough that you can build up a core who likesmost of them. And you have to deal with Personalities and keep threads from degenerating into flame wars or wandering off to boring topics of little interest to most.
    And not to get fulsome, but Hat is the best of the best. He’s lucky in one sense — topics here are usually uncontroversial (to anyone but dictionary bufffs and the like) so the blog is rarely invaded by outside fanatics. But the rest of his success is his own doing.
    The best blogowners have a light hand in the threads, but all of them are active in the comments and intervene whenever it is necessary, which it seldom is here.
    Academic bloggers have a big handicap because they have to look over their shoulders and remain within the bounds of respectability and responsibility, even if the blog is technically non-academic. Some of the best academic bloggers are pretty seriously anonymous, for example the former “Invisible Adjunct” and the former “Bitch PhD” (neither of whom blogged about their professional specialties.)
    If I’m correct, even most of the commentators here are people who left the university after attaining a fairly high level. (No offense intended to those who remained behind there).

  113. Just reviewing the specs on my speakers here. I thought I had 40 watts per channel (which would be pretty decent) but it looks like that’s just for the little speakers. Counting all the speakers I’ve got 400 watts max.
    That tuba is toast.

  114. Thanks for encouragement over the tuba. I am gaining ground, but slowly. I really hate myself for doing this–it seems so passive-aggressive–but I don’t want to be forced out of my place either until I am ready.

  115. Kron, don’t listen to Emerson and m-l about having your own blog. You don’t have to do anything on a blog you don’t want to do. If you want, it can just be one page that you never change.
    As usual, I have so much to say about the subject–too much to put in one comment, so it’s in my URL.
    Maybe we’ll see m-l with her own blog as well. Or maybe she’ll come back anonymously with a sockpuppet and we’ll see the gloves come off.

  116. A.J.P. Crown says

    it seems so passive-aggressive
    I wouldn’t call 400 watts THAT passive.

  117. Today when I cranked up the New World Order Illuminati video with the scaaary bass notes (are fourteen cycle subliminal scare notes just a Heinlein invention?) and went for a walk I was looking for notices of apartments. He’s winning.
    Kron you should really reconsider the blog thing. I made a sample blog for you–it’s very easy.

  118. To get back to the subject, the construction “women artists”, “women composers “ seems not to have been noted. Is that because “women “ is not adjectival but some sort of apposite noun? In any case I find the usage annoying. (And what’s wrong with “female artists “?)

  119. Good question. (I’m sorry you find it annoying, but a lot of women prefer it to “female,” and I defer to them.)

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