Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Investigating words: Validity (part 3: nouns)

Posts in this series: part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4.

Part 1 covered the basics, while part 2 dealt with adjectives and verbs.  This post will go into nouns in a bit more detail, although sadly it will mostly reflect confusion on my part.  This is the section where by far the majority of David's discretion would be required.

As I mentioned in part 1, there are two concerns with plural forms of nouns: What form or forms the plural should take, and whether the noun may be pluralised at all.  If one or more plural forms are explicitly listed then both questions are answered, but the situation is somewhat more ambiguous when no plural form is listed.  It could be that the noun is considered unpluralisable, or it could be pluralisable with one of the regular forms (that must be deduced).

Assuming that the noun is pluralisable, the associated plural form is generally clear and most native English speakers have internalised the principles as to which should be added.  Loosely speaking, -s is the default for most nouns, while -es is the default for nouns ending in s, z, x, sh, or a soft ch ("beaches", but "stomachs").  Nouns ending in a consonant followed by y usually turn the -y into -ies in the plural form.  (Aside: "monies" is a rare case of this plural form being allowed when a vowel precedes the y.)

There are some other general principles (particularly with the y endings), but that covers most of it.  Nouns ending in o are a rich source of exceptions, but the default assumptions should still be as above.  Usually this is all pretty clear, and unless the word is exceptional in some fashion there is general agreement as to what the plural form should be.

The Macquarie's policy is that a noun without a plural form explicitly specified is either unpluralisable or has just one plural form, made by appending the appropriate one of -s or -es to the noun; in all other cases the plural forms must be explicitly listed.  Implicit in this policy is that if a plural is not listed and the expected plural form would not be regular, then the noun is considered unpluralisable.

David's policy, mentioned several times, is:
  • If a spelling shift is involved in making the plural form -- beyond the simple addition of either -s or -es -- then that form is only valid if it is explicitly listed.
That is a reasonable policy based on the above, but unfortunately he is occasionally let down by the Macquarie's inconsistency.  This is particularly so with nouns ending in y: Rather than mentioning the standard rules for pluralising such nouns and taking them as a given, the Macquarie explicitly lists the plural forms because of the spelling shift -- effectively treating these as exceptional cases.

That would be fine if it always did so, but there are a good many cases where those plurals are simply not listed, despite the word obviously being pluralisable.  Two examples from early episodes that David suggested are PARITIES in episode 22 and LECCIES in episode 41 (LECCY: "a small boat powered by electricity").  Those were before he had formed his policy, and I think it is clear that they would be disallowed these days.

Two others that he has suggested since then are LURGIES in episode 313 and LOWRIES in episode 347; in each case he has presumably been caught out by the Macquarie's failure in this regard.  Some similar words that I have noted the potential for are AUMBRIES in episode 443 and HARPIES in episode 310; in each case the noun is pluralisable but the form is not listed.  I rambled a bit more about HARPIES in episode 420; best to stick with SHARPIE from that mix.

I have mentioned occasionally what I regard as the worst example of this, although I do not recall the potential of it arising yet: LORRY does not have a plural form listed.  I have encountered other instances during the course of this blog, but do not seem to have made a note of them.  (Although one that I recalled just now is HONESTY; no plural form is listed, but one of the meanings of HONESTY is a particular herb.  Thus, it should be pluralisable.)

Given the above, it raises the possibility that some plurals are missing by oversight rather than by the Macquarie taking a position on whether the noun is pluralisable.  Two that are of particular interest to me are DUALITIES from episode 379 and AMITIES from episode 399; this latter almost cost Alan Nash a place in the grand final of series four.  I think the case for these being pluralisable is reasonable, and I'm put out by the Macquarie not listing them.

That serves as a decent launching point to talk about the other part of this issue: Which nouns do not have a plural form?  Loosely speaking, there are two classes of nouns which are not pluralisable: Proper nouns and mass nouns.  A proper noun is one which refers to a unique entity of some kind; in English, proper nouns are usually capitalised, and thus not valid for purposes of the show.

Mass nouns are... well, I'll be honest: I'm kind of confused about the definition of a mass noun, and precisely what qualifies and what does not.  The definition that makes most sense to me is that a mass noun is a noun with cumulative reference: Combining two instances of the noun simply makes another instance of that noun.  For instance, combining water with water simply produces more water, and in this sense water is a mass noun.  (Although it is possible, for instance, to refer to "all the waters of the Earth"; some mass nouns have plural forms in different senses.)  Many of the simpler examples of mass nouns are substances, such as sand, fire, water, cloth.

The Macquarie defines a mass noun as "a noun referring to something which is being presented as indivisible into separate entities, whether it is concrete, as butter, or abstract, as unfriendliness".  I'm not entirely sold on that definition, but it does work much better for the issue of abstract nouns -- the above definition of cumulative reference is somewhat rooted in the physical.  On the other hand, as I read that definition it would make desire a mass noun -- how can a desire be divided? -- but in the sense in which I am thinking of desire it should be a count noun.

Given my uncertainty as expressed here, it should come as no surprise that I have many examples from play where I've encountered plurals about whose validity I am uncertain.  I'll be listing a few of them shortly, but first a general remark and an apology to David.  He is not in a position to respond to public comments about his rulings (since to do so might be seen as speaking for the show), and it must be frustrating when he reads incorrect remarks about them.  Of course, I flatter myself a bit to think that he reads this blog, but I should still make the corrections.

I have several times commented, sometimes with disapproving tone, that the show (i.e., David) seems to take a lax attitude toward which plurals are allowed.  In large part those comments all have their origin in ERBIUMS being deemed valid in episode 20.  A chemical element seems like the very definition of a mass noun, after all, so to allow it to be pluralised struck me as absurd.

Now, it may well be true that the default position is to allow all plurals unless they sound particularly wrong, and that is certainly a defensible choice.  But what I had not considered (and it has taken me until now to do so) is that every chemical element has isotopes; erbium has over thirty known isotopes, in fact, and so one could, for instance, refer to different erbiums (and the same reasoning applies to every other chemical element).  My earlier griping was thus incorrect, and my apologies to David.

I should add that the above serves as a good illustration of why a lax attitude towards plurals is safer; nothing in the definition of erbium or elements would indicate the possibility of this plural form, but a sufficient understanding of chemistry would do so.  It might be that similar domain-specific knowledge would allow plurals that otherwise seem like they should be ruled against; in lieu of the appropriate knowledge, simply allowing them is a safer option.

Here is a scattered list of some plurals that I've noted as "potentially there" throughout the blog, but not always been certain about: KARATES (episode 95), BLOATINGS (episode 307), SILAGES (episode 321), COPREMIAS (episode 341), FARINAS (episode 343), HALONS (episode 354), LORANS (episode 354), CANDOURS (episode 415), DACRONS (episode 415), BARITES (episode 418), FIBRATES (episode 418), MORALES (episode 421), UREMIAS (episode 421), ACUMENS (episode 422), and EBONITES (episode 440).

I'll start with those that seem like substances, and in particular with BARITES.  BARITE is listed as a synonym for BARYTES, the mineral barium sulfate.  To me, this sounds like a mass noun -- put two lumps of barium sulphate together and you just have more barium sulphate.  On the other hand, there's an argument that the "mineral" part suggests a particular agglomeration, which moves it back into discrete (and hence countable) territory.  Another point is that minerals tend to have a certain amount of impurities and other features that render one piece distinguishable from another.  Overall, my impression is that specific minerals are not treated as mass nouns, so that BARITES would be legal.  (I'll note that it is legal in Countdown.)  On the other hand, you'd be safer going with BAITERS from those letters.

I had thought that EBONITES was also a mineral, thanks to insufficient checking of the Macquarie.  It turns out that, while EBONITE is defined as a synonym for "vulcanite", the vulcanite in question is not the mineral vulcanite, but rather a type of rubber.  Again, this sounds like maybe it should be a mass noun, but given the possibility of varying sulfur content it is entirely reasonable to talk of various EBONITES.

FIBRATE is listed as "a derivative of fibric acid [...]"; that definition does not make it clear whether a specific derivative is meant (usually such would be listed) or a class is meant (which would usually be phrased as "any of various derivatives of fibric acid").  If a specific derivative were meant then it would arguably be a mass noun.  According to the Wikipedia page, though, there are several derivatives and thus FIBRATES should be acceptable.  It's pretty hard to tell that just from the dictionary entry, though, which again argues that the lenient attitude toward plurals is best.

Wikipedia lists several things that might be called HALONS, but the Macquarie defines HALON specifically as bromotrifluoromethane (Halon 1301).  This is a very specific chemical substance and so it seems to me that HALON is a mass noun and HALONS should be deemed invalid.

DACRON is a trademark for "a strong synthetic polyester fibre resistant to creases".  Individual fibres would clearly be countable and thus pluralisable, but in this context I think DACRON is referring to the substance that forms those fibres, and not to the fibres themselves.  Like HALON above, this is a very specific chemical substance, and although there might be some wriggle room by arguing about isomers my overall feeling is that DACRONS should not be allowed.

FARINA is defined as "flour or meal made from cereal grains [...]"; there are also some other definitions that might make this question irrelevant, but I'm looking at this one.  By my reading, since there are many different cereals it is reasonable to talk of differing farinas, and thus I would hope that FARINAS is allowed.

Moderately similarly, SILAGE is "green fodder preserved in a silo, silage pit, or mound".  While it is a mass noun, there can be many different types (based on the underlying vegetable matter used to make the silage), and thus it may well be reasonable to talk about differing SILAGES.  (And similarly, FODDERS and FOODS; I'm not entirely sold on this reasoning, but hopefully it serves as food for thought.)

A few of the list can be loosely grouped as medical conditions.  My uncertainties here tend to be along the lines of whether the term refers to a particular case of the malady -- in which case it would be pluralisable -- or whether it is the condition itself, in which case it may not be pluralisable. 

UREMIA is a variant spelling of URAEMIA: "the morbid condition resulting from the retention of urinary constituents".  COPREMIA is a variant spelling of COPRAEMIA: "blood-poisoning due to absorption of faecal matter".  BLOATING (in this context) is an alternative for BLOAT: "Veterinary Science (in cattle and other livestock) a distension of the rumen or paunch or of the large colon by gases of fermentation [...]".

Of those three, my instinct is that COPREMIAS is the most plausible, with the others less so.  I cannot point to anything specific that makes me think that; I'll note that both COPREMIAS and UREMIAS were listed in a Scrabble list that I checked, while BLOATINGS was not.

The remaining ones are not so well-grouped.  KARATE is "a Japanese martial art [...]", and I believe that there are many styles of karate, and thus that these could be called KARATES.  I'm not completely convinced by that reasoning, but mostly so.  LORAN is "a long-range radionavigation position fixing system [...]"; the question is whether that is essentially a proper noun (a specific system) or whether it can also refer to any particular implementation of it.  I can't decide on this one.

The remaining items -- CANDOURS, MORALES, ACUMENS -- all seem to me like they should be invalid.  Each of CANDOUR, MORALE, ACUMEN feels like an abstract mass noun.

So... there you have it.  Mostly, I'm just revealing my confusion as to what a mass noun is.  Some dictionaries are kind enough to indicate mass nouns, but the Macquarie does not, and I'm OK with that for once -- it's not the most easily decided of matters, and may well depend on technical knowledge.

Posts in this series: part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4.

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