The Plurality of Pluralization

I found out today that Editors Canada members now receive an online subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style. Bonus! … even if I just bought my own copy of the 17th edition, um, last week. Ah well. It’s good to have options, and I am indeed grateful for the benefits of membership I am already reaping in the short time since I joined.

In reviewing the contents of said publication today, I came across this little ditty at the beginning of Chapter 5:

In its usual sense, grammar is the set of rules governing how words are put together in sentences to communicate ideas—or the study of these rules. Native speakers of a language learn them unconsciously. (p 225, 17th ed.)

That last sentence made me giggle, because of this meme I saw on Facebook only this morning:No automatic alt text available.

Then I saw a comment that’s worth mentioning even if it’s beside the point:

“(This) is a cartoon about grammar errors that contains absolutely zero grammar errors. Spelling and punctuation are not grammar.”

I also find this funny, because my spanky new Chicago Manual tells me that there are many schools of grammatical thought, and grammarians (yes, that’s a thing!) can’t even agree. I could argue that at the very least, the use of “there” in the cartoon is indeed a grammatical error. The sign writer has not actually misspelled anything, but used the wrong word entirely, and confused a contraction of pronoun and verb (they’re) with a word that could be any of a number of parts of speech depending on the context (there). And “We got…”? Seriously, that’s not grammar?

But I digress…

Sam and the Two Marys

We may enjoy poking fun at the apparent incompetence of people in their grammar, spelling, syntax, or whatever, who apparently missed the memo that native speakers learn grammar unconsciously (or, figuratively speaking, by osmosis). However, I do recall marveling at my son’s language development in his early years, when he catapulted himself through an entire progression of sounds, words, phrases and then full sentences, with no direct instruction of any kind.

Sam was two and a half when we were wandering through a mall sometime after Christmas. During the season he had been rather taken with the Nativity and the players in it. Passing by a shop window, he spied a pair of female manikins and stopped dead. He pondered a moment, then pointed at them and said, “Two Marys.” I swear I never told him to add an s to the end of a noun to make it plural, and I am pretty sure I had never used Mary in the plural myself. I was amused, and in awe of the human brain and its development.

Now nearly 18, Sam is neither amused nor impressed by his linguistic achievement on that day. In his usual deadpan, ultra-pragmatic approach to life, his response to hearing this story was “Well yeah – doesn’t everybody figure that out?” Yes Sam, they do – but that’s exactly what makes it awesome. Everybody figures it out, and I got to witness it happen, with my own eyes, to my own progeny.

I don’t know why it struck me that day – perhaps because my mom brain was easily amused, or steeped in oxytocin. But what the Chicago Manual of Style lays out in several pages of rules and their exceptions, my two-year-old just knew: add s to a word and you get two of them. Most of the time, anyway.

The Data Obsession

Of course, Sam had to figure out much later that pluralizing a proper noun isn’t always considered appropriate, and that there are multitudes of ways to make nouns plural beyond the appended s.

The Manual holds up the word data as an example of a so-called mass noun that is plural in form but may be used grammatically as plural or singular. The latter is a more modern usage, and in a surprisingly familiar tone, the Manual asserts you pick one:

But make your play and be consistent – vacillating will not win the admiration of readers and listeners. (p 229)

Apparently, also, data is always plural when used in the sciences (p 229). This makes me happy, because I am a scientist, and the thing that James Harbeck calls “the language crank” in me does not like it when people confuse data and datum. I confess, though, that I may have a purely sentimental reason for this.

My graduate supervisor was an Englishman who could rival John Cleese in a rant. A hard-working, demanding boss, his favourite routine of the day was to walk into the lab and pick on someone with the pointed question: “Any data, [name of person in hot seat]?” We, his minions, er, I mean, students, grew to dread that question the way the child dreads hearing “Is your room clean?” from a parent. We knew what we were supposed to be doing, but the way biomedical research goes, you can work for days and not have any data to show for it. Still, he had a point, just like parents do, and we worked hard.

One afternoon, in a manner perhaps even more jovial than usual, Dr. Lover-of-Results wanders into the lab and this time asks no one in particular, “Any data?”

Silence. Our heads are down. We are working. Feverishly.

“Any datUM?”

Crickets. Or the laboratory equivalent, at least.

“Erm… anyone have a DATE tonight?”

Nothing. We are very, very busy. One last try:

“Anyone know what DAY it is??”

I’m pretty sure it was Friday, and that we had a good laugh. But what I do remember clearly is this: the data were (not was) central to lab life, and still represent (not represents) the sometimes all too elusive Holy Grail to graduate students around the world.

It’s what we do with the data once we get it, er, I mean them (consistency!), that completes the process, and, in my opinion, defines the relationship between science and the public. But that’s a topic for another post…

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