Tap, Tap, Tap

One of the reasons I started doing this blog was to learn to tune my approach. I’m starting to wonder if I’ve need to do some dial-twisting*. As a general rule, I don’t normally expect to get a lot of feedback on how I write–certainly less than on what I write–but I’d appreciate it if you could take a minute to think about the question I’m going to ask at the end of this post and then give me your answer.

* Showing my age here. Some of you younger readers may not be aware that in the pre-digital age, you couldn’t just push a button to have your radio or TV go to the station you wanted. You had to physically rotate a knob. Even with TVs that had channel numbers marked on a dial, you frequently had to manually fine-tune the station!

In Monday’s post, I wrote

One bust, two busts
One moose, two mooses
One mouth, two mouths

Watch out for irregular words, though. Some words use non-standard plural forms (one mouse, two mice) or the same word for both singular and plural (one deer, two deer). It’s amazing how few people will notice if you slip up, as long as you use the correct standard form, so be careful.

My intent was to make a joke. “Moose” is almost one of those irregular words where singular and plural are the same. The general consensus is that “mooses” is obsolete and rarely used. (“Meese”, formed by analogy with “geese” as the plural of “goose” is inappropriate because goose/geese comes from German roots, but “moose” comes from the Algonquian indian language. Strictly speaking, the plural really should be “mosinee” (thank you Wiktionary) but I think we can all agree that that’s not going to fly with English speakers. Of course, moose don’t fly either, unless they get into a marijuana patch, but that’s beside the point. End of digression.)

I expected that many people would skim right past the joke, but I also expected to get at least a couple of “Hey, wait, you made a mistake,” responses, and maybe one or two “Heh. Cute,” reactions. Instead, I’ve gotten exactly one response, from someone who suggested that “mooses” was obsolete and I should use a different example.

So here’s the question I warned you about in the first paragraph:

Where did I go wrong?

I’ve come up with a few possible answers:

  1. “Mooses” was too subtle. I should have used something like “wife->wifes” or “man->mans”
  2. It wasn’t amusing enough for anyone to feel the need to comment on
  3. Nobody is reading the blog on Mondays (actually, the evidence doesn’t support that hypothesis: Mondays typically have the highest or second-highest view counts of the week)
  4. Too much “bystander effect”–everyone figured someone else would point out the error (if that’s the case, I may have to rename this blog Kitty Genovese…)

Please think about it and let me know your answer, especially if it’s not one of the possibilities I’ve listed. You can send me an email if you feel self-conscious about posting a public comment. I’m especially interested in hearing from those of you who speak English as a second language.

What’s Up?

I indicated last week that I was willing to risk the fall of civilization by accepting the modern usage of “literally” to mean “not literally”. The risk is small. If I were doing QA on the use of the English language as a means of destroying civilization, and time or budgetary constraints forced a reduction in test scope, that would be among the first tests to be omitted.

But there’s another trend in English usage that’s of much greater risk. That’s the greengrocers’ apostrophe, and I am not going to compromise on that! Get your plurals correct or risk my wrath!

“Oh, come on,” I hear you say. “Is there really such a big risk in a few extra apostrophe’s? What doe’s it matter if I add an apostrophe in writing plural’s?”

To which I reply “AAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaargh!!!!!”

Yes, there is a risk. Not only are you wasting time, effort, and ink, but you are also decreasing your readers’ ability to understand you.

The rules for making a word plural are simple:

1) Add an es if the word ends in s, sh, ch, x, or z.
2) Otherwise, add an s.


One bus, two buses
One fox, two foxes
One brunch, two brunches


One bust, two busts
One moose, two mooses
One mouth, two mouths

Watch out for irregular words, though. Some words use non-standard plural forms (one mouse, two mice) or the same word for both singular and plural (one deer, two deer). It’s amazing how few people will notice if you slip up, as long as you use the correct standard form, so be careful.

Please note that there are no apostrophes in any of those plurals. That’s because the apostrophe is used to indicate a relationship between two things: a relationship of ownership or possession. (Note: the apostrophe is also used for contractions (leaving out letters), but that’s a subject for another time.) The rule of thumb to use for possession is that if the relationship can be stated using the phrase “of the”, it can also be stated using an apostrophe.

The rules here are also simple:

1) Add if the word ends in s.
2) Otherwise, add ‘s.


The drivers of the bus or the bus’ drivers
The scale of the fish or the fish’s scale
The tails of the foxes or the foxes’ tails


“Free of the bananas” makes no sense, so not “the banana’s free” (or worse yet, “free banana’s”)

That’s really not so difficult, right? Right.

And it matters. Consider these possible newspaper headlines:

  • Bay Bridge Bolt’s Break
  • Bay Bridge Bolts Break

The first tells us that one of the bolts on the bridge has had a break. We’ll have to read the article to find out whether the bolt has snapped or won the lottery, but either way, it’s only one bolt.

The second tells us that whatever happened, it happened to more than one bolt. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to be driving across the bridge, I want to know how many of the bolts have retired to Hawaii.

So now you know the rules and you have no excuse for misusing your apostrophes. Henceforth, violators will be sentenced to hang by their ears’.

Uh… ears’ lobes! Yeah, that’s it!

You Could Look It Up

Lior strikes again. He seems to have a knack for finding articles I want to talk about. His latest find is this io9 article accusing Google of contributing to the decline of society.

The article points out that Google’s definition of the word “literally” includes the modern usage to mean “not literally, but I feel strongly about it”. The author apparently feels that this is a symbol of the impending collapse of society.

Note that the author seems more concerned about Google’s legitimization of the practice than the actual usage itself, though he seems to fear both. I disagree on both counts.

Face it: language changes. Even in France, where the Académie française has been working to officially define the French language for more than 375 years, the language continues to change and grow. The eighth edition of their dictionary was published in 1935. The ninth edition has been in progress since 1986. Not exactly a sign of a stationary target.

The last really popular English dictionary to document a specific vision of what the language should be (i.e. a prescriptive dictionary) is arguably Noah Webster’s “An American Dictionary of the English Language”, which was published in 1828. Since then, dictionaries have become increasingly descriptive, defining the language as it is actually used. (As a point of reference, the dictionary considered by many to be the ultimate to which all dictionaries should aspire is the Oxford English Dictionary aka “The OED”. It was intended from the beginning to be descriptive, covering every word used in the English language from 1150 AD to the present. The decision to begin the work was made in 1857 and began in 1879. The original schedule called for publication around 1890; over a century and a half later, they’re still at it. Optimistic release schedules did not begin with the software industry.)

So dictionaries, even popular ones, have been documenting how the language is actually used for almost two centuries. Even if that is a sign of the impending end of civilization, Google’s inclusion of the modern usage of “literally” isn’t going to do much to accelerate the arrival of the final collapse. Google isn’t the first to include the modern usage, nor will it be the last. Note that The OED itself has included the modern usage since 2011. Interestingly enough, the “modern” usage actually predates The OED itself: the oldest documented usage comes from 1769.

What about the author’s other point, that the two definitions are contradictory and “that seems like it’s going to be problematic”?

English has been coping with internal contradictions for millennia. I won’t open the “flammable/inflammable” discussion now. I will point out that nobody has experienced personal harm due to the use of “custom” to mean “the normal, common way” and “a special version”. Ditto for the “dust” meaning both “sprinkle fine particles on something” and “remove fine particles from something”.

So even though the modern usage literally makes me grind my teeth, let us sanction its usage. Your choice whether “sanction” means “approve of” or “boycott”.

PS: Lior, your check is literally in the mail.