The Prankster And The Plural

english

Ever since I learned to read, English has been my renegade lover.  She is a rapiered pirate with a pistol in her belt and a stiletto on her sleeve.  She moves like a tango, cool-eyed and serious — the scent of the Trade Winds tangled in her hair and the salt of the sea still lingers on her lips.  But when she speaks you must listen carefully – her words are full of wit and unexpected – because she is a prankster, a trickster, a conjurer of jests that make her giggle and clap and crinkle her eyes.

“Would you like some more?” she says, the temptress not even hidden in her voice.
“It’s very easy,” she says, sly as the fox.
“All you have to do,” she says, looking away, “Is add an ‘S’ and you will have two, four, ten, even a thousand — if you like.”

And then you try it, and she has you trapped because it’s her game and she made the rules.

We all know the plural of house is houses, but what about mouse — cuz the plural ain’t mouses.  It’s mice, like lice is the plural of louse.  And it works the same way with a word such as noose.  Though the plural is nooses, you can’t do that with tooth, cuz more than one tooth is never called toothes. They’re teeth just like geese is the plural of goose.  Then it all goes to hell when there’s more than one moose!

But let’s get serious.  No, moose doesn’t get a plural.  Why?  Who knows?  But they’re like several other animals – sheep, swine, deer, bison, shrimp, etc.  One sheep, two sheep, ‘nother sheep, ‘nother sheep; it just doesn’t change.  It’s as if these particular animals were bad or something.  My theory is they pissed Noah off when they were late for the Ark, and he lobbed off their ‘S’ as punishment.  Either way, it’s clear: the “add an ‘S’ rule” doesn’t always work.  Especially since some singular words sound like plurals right from the beginning, and nobody bats an eye.  Look at scissors, pliers and binoculars.  They all get the extra ‘S’ before they even need it.  And some of those singular plurals start off as pairs.  Not like a pair of socks (which is two) but like a pair of pants — which is only one.  And I’m not even going to speculate how we arrived at a pair of pajamas.

Then there are other badass words that don’t care if they’re singular or not.  They just use the plural and strut around like a bunch of linguistic anarchists — words like criteria, media, data and our old favourite, graffiti.  This crew has been wrong for so long everybody thinks they’re right.

Plus there are some pretentious words that don’t bother with the ‘S’ and choose to use an ‘I’ instead because – OOWW! — they’re from the Latin, dontcha know!  These are words like fungus and focus and octopus and cactus.  Personally, I avoid these words because anyone who drops “foci” or “cacti” into a conversation might as well wear a sign that says “Pompous Ass.”  FYI: for all the other pompous asses in the neighbourhood, the plural of hippopotamus is NOT hippopotamiHippopotamus is a Greek word, so the Latin rules don’t apply.  On the other hand, the octopus (also a Greek word) is a smart little cephalopod and snuck into the Latin section when no one was looking.

And from here it just goes nuts.  It’s as if the English language got totally wasted one night on Jamaican rum and was dancing around, naming things.  The plural of dice is die.  The plural of thief is thieves.  The plural of aircraft is – heh, heh, heh – you don’t get one.  More than one child is children — figure that one out – although it happens again with ox and oxenMan becomes men and women don’t get a choice.  Then, just as she collapses on the sofa, laughing, she says, “Oh yeah!  And the plural of person is people.”

So, if you’re studying English as a second language and she’s sitting slumped in a chair with her boots on the table, cleaning her fingernails with a dagger — just do as you’re told!  It’s easier that way.

I Love Collective Nouns

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Collective nouns are cool.  They add colour and flavour to the otherwise boring job of naming things.  Plus, once you get past the regular stuff like a herd of cattle, a flock of sheep, a pack of dogs etc., they get uber-creative.  I wanna meet the person who thought up “a parliament of owls.”  What kind of a mind can do that?  Or a cauldron of bats?  A prickle of porcupines?  And everybody’s favourite – a murder of crows?  I look at lemurs and think “cute little furry buggers” but somebody else thought “a conspiracy” and, yeah, they were right.  A group of lemurs huddled together look like they’re plotting something.  So, with that in mind, I thought I’d try my hand at creating collective nouns.  Some are more creative than others.

A treachery of politicians – This illustrates the lie/deny cycle of political life.

A scold of environmentalists – A fine label for the holier-than-thou attitude most of these people take.

A robbery of insurance companies – This one speaks for itself.

A congratulation of celebrities – No other group on this planet spends as much time telling each other just how “awesome” they are.

A labyrinth of lawyers – If you can’t get there from here, there’s always a lawyer hiding around the corner somewhere.

A necessity of police officers – Let’s face it!  Without the cops, the streets of most major cities would be a war zone.

A vocalization of vegans – Do you have any idea what these people don’t eat?  Oh, never mind: they’ve already told you – twice!

An annoyance of evangelists – Nothing is quite as big a pain in the ass as somebody interrupting your day to tell you that their God can beat up your God.

A tremble of university students – Here’s a group so fragile they need “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” just to make it through the day.

A lethargy of government workers – One government worker is no problem — but in a group … glaciers move faster.

A swindle of salesmen – Unfortunately, it’s always men who give this profession a bad name.

A tantrum of Twitter users – Once again, this speaks for itself.

A pharmacy of athletes – Professional athletes take a lot of “supplements” – a lot!

A trudge of tourists – What else would you call crowds of sober-faced 40-somethings, plodding through the streets, looking for art galleries, museums and monuments — day after day?

A disgrace of journalists – Once an honourable profession, as a group, these people haven’t done their job properly since Edward R. Murrow roamed the Earth.

A prance of parents – This group is particularly pleased with themselves — even though the vast majority of them are only parents because they let a Ryan Gosling movie get out of hand.

And finally:

A misery of millennials – These perpetual malcontents are constantly complaining about something.  And when they run out of ordinary stuff to whine about, they trot out their student loan.  God, people!  Give it a rest!  Nobody can be that unhappy.

Did I miss any?

“Only” – An Unsung Hero!

unsung hero

“Only” is the hardest-working little word in the English language.  It does stuff that other words just dream about.  It modifies nouns, it modifies verbs, it connects phrases and, depending on where you place it, it can change the entire meaning of any sentence.  “Only” has so much talent; I’m sure all the other words are jealous.  But does anybody sing the praises of “only?”  Do you ever hear, “Good job, ‘only?’ or “Thanks, ‘only!’ You really spiced up my sentence?”  Nope!  Never happens!  The truth is, nobody thinks about “only.”  It just hangs out in the dictionary with all the other words (who don’t do half as much work, BTW) waiting for some writer who’s searching for subtletyThat’s when “only” jumps into the literary fray, without hesitation or fanfare, and gets the job done.  And what a job!  Here are just a few examples of what “only” can do.

It can kick-start an argument

“You phone me when you want to sleep with me.”
A legitimate statement, invitation or dismissal.
“You only phone me when you want to sleep with me.”
Suddenly, somebody’s a jerk and the war’s on.

It can convey emotion.

“He lost his friend when his dog ran away.”
Aww, that’s too bad.
“He lost his only friend when his dog ran away.”
OMG!  That’s s-o-o-o-o sad!

It can turn an ordinary evening into something special.

“She was wearing an apron when he came home.”
“She was only wearing an apron when he came home.”

Pair “only” with “if” and you get a ton of regret.

“If I’d kissed her, she wouldn’t have married Malcolm.”
“If only I’d kissed her, she wouldn’t have married Malcolm.”

Lawyers love “only” because it can mitigate the circumstances.

“She robbed the bank.”
“She only robbed the bank.”

But it can also assign blame.

“When the fire started, he tried to save himself.”
What a quick-thinking individual!
“When the fire started, he only tried to save himself.”
Selfish bastard!

Or it can turn a good deed into a reprimand

“She cleaned out the closet before she sat down and watched TV.”
Very responsible.
“She only cleaned out the closet before she sat down and watched TV.”
Lazy snot!

Or it can change the meaning entirely.  And this is where “only” really flexes its muscles.  Take a look at this single simple sentence.

“She told him that she loved him.”

Now, sit back and see how “only” changes the meaning — seven different times.

Only she told him that she loved him.
She only told him that she loved him.
She told only him that she loved him.
She told him only that she loved him.
She told him that only she loved him.
She told him that she only loved him.
She told him that she loved only him.

I think it’s time we all take a moment out of our busy lives, pour a glass and drink a toast to “only,” the unsung hero of syntax and semantics.

“Here’s to you, ‘only!’  Keep up the good work!”