Questions on Nouns


Question: (From a campus computing consultant): Can you help resolve the controversy over the use of the university's various names? Is there any reason for the university to prefer any one of these names over the others?

Answer: North Carolina State University is known by at least six names:

North Carolina State University
N.C. State University
NC State University
N.C. State
NC State
NCSU

The official, full name of the university is North Carolina State University. This designator is historical and richly descriptive. Official university publications should certainly use it--particularly on first use. In the opinion of the Grammar Hotline, the use of a nickname before the formal name has been properly established is less often a sign of robust self-identity than it is of ingrained provincialism.

N.C. State University and NC State University abbreviate only the state name. Choice of abbreviation style is, of course, a matter of taste, but adopting the punctuated version is the path of least resistance. Newspaper wire services and most editorial-style manuals mandate the periods. The university has managed to purge the periods on the chalked endzone of the football field, but has made no headway in the school newspaper--let alone in the Raleigh News and Observer or the New York Times.

N.C. State and NC State are forms so clipped as to be useful only internally. Troubles abound when "N.C. State" is used as an adjective. N.C. State can be a synonym for state of North Carolina. Even if the university were to stake out a successful claim in the Land of No Punctuation, the difference between the NC State Archives (on campus) and the N.C. State Archives (in downtown Raleigh) would not be obvious to the casual reader.

NCSU is a form more useful in print than in speech. It is the acronym most parallel to other designators for schools in the University of North Carolina system (UNC-CH, UNC-C, UNC-G, NCCU, etc.). Readers may process NCSU as an ideogram and not actually read the letters, but the fact is that this is a very efficient way to read. NCSU also stands out on the page, is unambiguous as an adjective, and is well established as an acronym in the university's extensive and growing computing environment.

I have followed the current wrangling over the university's name with bemused interest. In the long run, I believe that the university will bow to a principle already well established in the grammar-maven business: Language is as language does. Personal preference is a weak tool against entrenched practice.


Question (From a graduating high school senior): I am a female student. When I enroll at N.C. State this fall, will I be a freshman, a freshwoman, a freshperson, or a fresh-human?

Answer: This is a question better posed as graffiti in the Freedom of Expression Tunnel than as a posting to the Grammar Hotline. The Grammar Hotlineís reaction to the more inventive of these terms is an involuntary shudder of revulsion, but there is little doubt that some of them are vested with an extra layer of meaning. Whether that extra meaning is "I am more sensitive than you are" or "I value politics over clarity of expression" is an issue that you can explore at length during your years at N.C. State.

How many years that will be is problematic. For a while, the administration tried to finesse the "fresh-compound" issue by calling our incoming high-school graduates first-year students. The term first-year is accurate and descriptive, but it proved inadequate. Many students successfully finished their first year only to find that they had amassed insufficient credit hours to be called sophomores. Students like to be classified as something. Many, feeling that they had outgrown the first-year label but too self-effacing to claim credit hours they had not yet completed, insensitively reverted to calling themselves freshmen.

To solve this thorny issue, the Grammar Hotline recommends that the Admissions Office encourage our first-year students to enroll with sufficient Advanced Placement credit that we can classify them as sophomores right from the start. If you did not have the foresight to do this, I recommend that you choose the term that will lead to the conversation you wish to have.

"Iím a freshman and Iím lost. Whereís Harrelson Hall?" is likely to lead to a short exchange and a pointed finger.

"Iím a fresh-human and Iím lost. Whereís Harrelson Hall?" is likely to lead to a conversation so long that you will be late to class.


Question: Some people put in honorifics whenever they mention someone in print, e.g., "Ms. Amelia Ehrhart will help you with your travel plans" or "If you need surgical advice, Dr. Jack Ripper is the one to see."

I would say "Amelia Ehrhart will help you with any aviation needs. If you need to speak to Ms. Ehrhart, call her at _________" or "Jack D. Ripper is an expert on women. You can find Dr. Ripper's book at your neighborhood MacBookstore."

Which is correct, and why?

Answer: This is a point of style that is dictated by context. In my experience, even publication offices that have adopted a published style manual often choose to make ad hoc rules on this point.

The problem with honorifics, of course, is that they mark a proper name for both sex and (in the case of women) for marital status. For the past two decades, many publishers have chosen to omit honorifics altogether in order to sidestep this particular socio-political quagmire. Publication offices often find this stark style unusable. The North Carolina Museum of Art, for example, tried the stark style, only to balk at calling major and often quite conservative contributors by their last names alone. They feared, for example, that Mrs. Moneyed Dowager would not be pleased at the familiarity of Dowager. A directive to restore honorifics to all proper names, however, produced Mr. Michelangelo, which was strange indeed.

NCMA instituted a mixed style: one style for members; another for artists. This matched with its readership's expectations. As a working editor, I have concluded that you can't do better than that.

Question 2: Actually, my question was a different one, and I realize I framed it poorly. What I want to know is whether it is proper to use the honorific when you are referring to someone's full name, that is, the given name as well as the surname.

Some people, in an effort to be respectful, might say something like "My sister and I visited the Sistine Chapel, which was painted by Mr. Michelangelo Buonarroti." Setting aside the fact that the guy has been dead for four hundred years, the honorific sounds excessive to me because his full name is used. I think that one would refer to him in this context as Michelangelo, Michelangelo Buonarroti, or Mr. Buonarroti, but not Mr. Michangelo Buonarroti. It's the use of both names that bothers me.

Answer: In the context you give, I think you're right, but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find much copy that fits into that context (namely, full name always followed by shortened back references). Very often, a name appears only once, and the name must be given in full on first reference. In copy where many names are introduced in full without an honorific and only a few are shorted with an honorific, those few will appear to be in error.

I think the reason this is bothering you is that you're thinking of an honorific as a "term of direct address." Certainly you're right that no one ever says "Excuse me, Mr. Michelangelo Buonarotti, but could you find the time to give my bangs a trim." But on the other hand, no one ever says "Excuse me, Michelangelo Buonarotti, but could you find the time to . . ." The point is that names can be used in direct address, but they need not be. In the examples you give, they are not terms of direct address; they're just names. And names in run of text need not conform to our conventions for direct address.


Question: I am typing up the results of a workshop in which a panel has listed a series of tasks (not in the form of complete sentences) that our graduates need to know how to perform. One reads as follows...

Recognize employee's potentials, strengths, and limitations

My supervisor questioned whether the word potential should be pluralized with an "s." Can you tell me if the task as it now stands is grammatically acceptable?

Answer: I agree with your supervisor. I don't think that the word potential is ever plural in colloquial American English. Language changes, of course, and this is exactly the kind of context in which it changes, but in the meantime new coinages stick out like sore thumbs and distract the reader from the content of your copy.

On the other hand, you are typing out the proceedings of a workshop. Did the participants use this word? If they did, it may not be in your power to emend their usage.

It is not immediately obvious to me that these three categories ought logically to be covered in this order. If I were evaluating an employee, I would start with the present and move on to the future. Thus, I might start with strengths, move on to weaknesses, and finish with potential.

Note that I have used the word weaknesses instead of limitations. I have noticed, however, that no one likes to use the word weakness. The author of a study I edited was absolutely consistent in opposing his university's strengths to its challenges. One of the members of his steering committee objected to this usage. I sat up straight in my chair, hoping to be treated to a dose of common sense. I can't describe how disappointed I was when I realized that the committee member wanted to substitute the word opportunities. Take your choice: "The major (problem/challenge/opportunity/limitation) facing the university is its chronic budget shortfall."

I can't fathom why committees so often believe that such obfuscation will result in useful, positive change.


Question: One of the greatest troubles I have with English is determining the plural form of nouns. I am not talking about the common way of adding "s," "ies" or "es" to an ordinary noun, like book to books or university to universities.

My trouble is mostly in telling if the noun has a plural form. I know very little about rules, but one of them I know is if the noun represents an abstract concept, then I shouldn't use plural form. The problem is itís not easy to distinguish conceptual nouns from non-conceptual nouns. It surprised me, for example, that the word concept itself has a plural form.

Could you shed some light on this for me? Is there a list of nouns for which we never should use plural forms? Thanks.

Answer: As your example proves, the rule you cite is not much of a rule. Concept is not the only abstract concept in English that has a plural form. There are plural forms for idea(s), theorem(s), abstraction(s), belief(s) . . . Co me to think of it, I can think of very few abstract concepts that don't have plural forms. The main ones, I suppose, are emotions (love, anger, greed). For the most part, however, I don't think that the rule you cite is a useful way to think about these things. Who told you this was a rule?

On the other hand, there are some English words without plural forms. Some that I can think of are noncountable nouns (sugar, bacon, lox), and sets of things (dinnerware, luggage). Obviously, these are all very concrete (not abstract) nouns.

Although I cannot direct you to a list of such nouns, I can recommend that you purchase a dictionary that will give you some descriptive information. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition) is excellent.

Question 2: By the way, why does abstraction have a plural form?

Answer: The default in English is that any word can be pluralized. Words that cannot be pluralized are the exception. Thus, the default answer to "Why?" would be "Why not?"

English semantic usage is a matter of custom and practice. The "rules" are only attempts to describe common, colloquial practice. When they are "wrong," they are wrong in this way: They fail accurately to describe the data set (common practice).

Followup: Aha! I found your rule in an appendix to Writing: A College Handbook, 4th edition, by James A. W. Heffernan and John E. Lincoln (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1994). This is the standard freshman handbook at N.C. State, readily available in the bookstore. The appendix is called "Standard American English as a Second Language: A Brief Guide."

The "rule" (not really a rule at all, but rather a description), is embedded in a description of how to use English determiners (a, an, the, etc.). It notes:

To choose the right determiner, you must know whether the noun it modifies is "countable" or "uncountable."

Countable nouns may be singular or plural: car, cars
book, books
woman, women
course, courses
Uncountable nouns are normally singular. They include Words naming a mass of something, such as: cement, wheat, dirt, rice, mud, air, cotton
Words naming abstract ideas, such as: fortune, luck, justice, advice, knowledge, cowardice, bravery
Some nouns are countable in one sense and uncountable in another: We added sand (a mass) to the mixture.
The sands of time (individual grains) are running out.
Life is full of surprises.
What is the value of a life? A cat has nine lives.

Note that this description is not about abstractions; it is about countable and uncountable nouns.

Note too that this description is not exhaustive. It does not say that the only kinds of uncountable nouns are masses or abstractions, and the last paragraph allows for virtually any exception.

Furthermore, I would quibble with the use of the term "abstract ideas." As we have discussed before, idea is an abstraction, and yet it can be pluralized. Maybe it would help you to think in terms of "abstract qualities or conditions." This is a better descriptor for fortune, luck, justice, advice, knowledge, cowardice, bravery, and (for that matter) the terms we have discussed before: love, greed, honor.


Question: In my psychology class, one of the points I stress in instructions for the first paper is that data is a plural noun; therefore "data are." An English major in the class told me that the English department now teaches students that data is a singular noun: "data is."

Ouch!

And then what--do we coin a new plural, datas?

Answer: It is certainly not the case that the English department teaches students that data is a singular noun, but perhaps a subset of the English department teach that data is a singular noun. English department, like subset, can be a collective noun.

If the English faculty agree on anything at all, perhaps they agree on the prescriptions of the freshman handbook, which says "Data is the plural of the Latin datum, meaning 'something given'--a piece of information. Data should be treated as plural."


Question: I have a question about usage, I suppose, rather than grammar. Nevertheless, maybe you can help.

In a list of committee members, I wonder whether it is proper to list Mary Jones and her husband, Jack Jones Jr., as

Jack Jr. and Mary Jones

I feel it is improper to list them as Jack and Mary Jones Jr. or even Mary and Jack Jones Jr. (Mary is not a Jr.). Yes, I know there are ways to get around the problem, but I cannot use Mr. and Mrs. and I must list Mary with Jack.

Answer: The problem, as you must have noticed, is that there is a discord between what is "proper" and what you want to (or must) do.

As far as "proper" goes, we may as well go to the font, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. Miss Manners notes on page 30 that "No one ever is correctly styled 'Mrs. Elizabeth Wellborn,í come death, divorce, or famine."

If you follow this dictum, the only available "proper" form is Mr. and Mrs. Jack Jones, Jr. (note the comma).

But you're not going to follow this dictum; you're going to make up an ad hoc rule. My only useful observation on this process is that you ought to commit to the adhockery. Complicating the rules is not going to assuage your sense of guilt.

The base editorial principle is to call the committee members by the names they prefer. If this is Mary Jones and Jack Jones, Jr., I weakly support Mary and Jack Jones, Jr.

But as long as we're engaged in adhockery, I recommend going all the way. If I were in charge of the project, I'd take a feminist stance, insist that each committee member be accorded the dignity of a separate line and list them as:

Jack Jones, Jr.
Mary Jones

Note the alphabetical order.


Question: What is the plural possessive of sister-in-law? (Is it sisters-in-law's?)

Answer: Ooh. You're on to something here. The plural of sister-in-law is sisters-in-law, but of course the plural possessive isn't sisters'-in-law. Let's try it several ways:

a. I am the undeserving victim of my sisters'-in-law vitriole.
b. I am the undeserving victim of my sisters-in-law's vitriole.
c. I am the undeserving victim of my sister-in-laws' vitriole.
d. I am the undeserving victim of my sisters-in-laws' vitriole.

The Grammar Hotline is weakly in favor of "b." As a practical matter, however, she recommends avoiding this construction--and also avoiding these sisters-in-law.


Question: We have a co-worker whose last name is Beach. She wants to sign her Christmas cards as The Beach's because if she signs it The Beaches, it looks like the card is from Newport, Miami and Virginia! I told her she should never ever use and apostrophe to indicate plurals, but I didn't have a solution that didn't look goofy. Help us settle an office debate that's gone on way too long to be productive!

Answer: Your colleague could probably get away with The Beach's on her Christmas card, but only because Christmas is the season of jollity, goodwill, and too much eggnog. The minute her friends and family sober up (either literally or figuratively) in January, they will make nasty judgments about her apostrophe addiction.

The problem, of course, is not at base a problem with an apostrophe. The problem is that Beach is a proper noun that has meaning as a common noun. I don't see how Beach's is much of an improvement over Beaches in eliminating the ambiguity--unless we reason that the punctuation error will be sufficiently distracting that recipients of the card will not be able to process the double meaning.

The usual solution is syntactic: Convert the noun to an adjective and supply a generic noun. This generates The Beach Family" Alternatively, she could simply supply the family's first names. In a perfect world, these would be Virginia and Buckroe.


Question: I'm addressing a letter to two doctors who are married. Is it correct to use the abbreviation Drs., as in Drs. Robert and Bobbi Stanley?

I can't find Drs. in Merriam-Webster's, and I'm not sure it looks quite right. But I'd rather not resort to the standard Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Stanley for several reasons. First, they both identify themselves professionally using either the Dr. prefix or the Ph.D. suffix. Second, I'm sending a business letter (as opposed to a personal one) and should probably use a courtesy title that addresses them professionally. Third, although I'm sending one letter to them both (addressed to the wife's office), they have separate practices and each should be recognized by name.

Answer: If you were addressing a Christmas card, I would tell you to use Drs. Robert and Bobbi Stanley. Since this is a business letter, however, I recommend a form of address that ignores their marital status. This generates: Dr. Bobbi Stanley and Dr. Robert Stanley. The first name is the name of the practice corresponding to the address on the envelope.

Your reasoning is this: Sex and marital status are irrelevant in business setting. Every addressee is entitled to his or her full name, including his or her preferred honorific.

Sticking to this rule will keep you out of trouble when you do not, in fact, know the relationship between the addressees. Carelessness in this small matter might result in such odd couplings as:

Karl and Harpo Marx
Demi and Thomas Moore
-or for that matter-
Kevin and Jackie Collins


Question: I'm having trouble with the below sentence. I do not know if the usage of the second receipt is correct. Please help me.

Please send me a receipt to the above address confirming your receipt of payment.

Answer: This is an interesting sentence because it turns on you so insidiously. Receipt, of course, has two meanings; it means "paper acknowledgment" and it also means "process of receiving." All English speakers know this, but this doesn't mean that they don't start out trying to process the word the same way in the same sentence. In short, there's nothing wrong with your used of the word receipt either time in your sentence, but the sentence doesn't work as well as you wish it did because your reader tries to read both words with the same meaning.

The solution is to spin out one of the words so that it ends up as a different part of speech. How about:

When you receive my payment, please send a receipt to the above address.


Question: Help! I'm running a blank! Please help me out with a who/whom sentence. Here's the sentence: "Do you have a preference of who/whom you would like to sit with at the Holiday Party?" Should I use who or whom?

Answer: If for some reason you must keep this sentence, the correct choice is whom. The reason is that whom is the object of a preposition in an embedded clause. It's easier to figure out if we isolate the clause. The isolated clause is: "You would like to sit with who/whom." Whom is correct because it is the object of the preposition with.

And now that I've said all that, I recommend that you reword this sentence to finesse the problem. This advice actually has more to do with tone than with clarity and grammar. Inserting whom into a sentence elevates the style to academic prose, which is likely to make your colleagues think that the holiday party isn't going to be much fun. Look over the whole memo to see if you can group this choice with other choices. Here's how it might go:

Bob Cratchit has offered to host our annual holiday party at his home after work on Wednesday, December 24. Unfortunately, the size of Bob's larder does not match the size of his generous heart, so we've decided to make this a covered-dish aff air. Let Bob know what you'll bring and who should sit at your table.

In the last sentence, who is the subject of its clause, so it's who, not whom.

Obviously, this party is going to be fraught with grammatical peril. Just to be on the safe side, you'd better invite me. It's traditional to station a consulting grammarian by the crab dip.


Question (From a community college administrator): I have a question regarding the following sentence:

This data, along with the other data, is suggestive of some of the challenges likely to be encountered in this project.

Is it more correct to say is suggestive or are suggestive in this sentence?

Answer: Data is a word that English has borrowed from Latin. In Latin, the singular form of the word is datum, which is a second-declension neuter noun. Data is the plural.

Most educated speakers and writers in English continue to use the Latin forms of this word. Since data is a plural, it takes a plural verb. Thus, in the example you give, "These data are suggestive" would be the usual choice.< /P>

But data, of course, looks singular. As a result, it is not at all difficult to find examples of data used with a singular verb in speechóand even in writing. It is important to note, however, that those who assume that data is a singular noun almost never try to make it plural (nobody uses the word datas). They are much more likely to regard it as a non-count nounósomething like sugar.

I would ordinarily waffle a bit in writing this kind of answer. In your case, however, the wording of the question provides the very qualification I need. You didnít ask which form is "correct"; you asked which form is "more correct." My answer to that is unequivocal: Are is more correct.

One final note: Now that this problem is resolved, the writer of this sentence should take a look at the stem verb. "These data suggest" is clearer and better worded than "These data are suggestive."


Question (From the North Carolina Aquarium): The dictionary definition of artifact reads "any object made by human work; esp., a simple or primitive tool, weapon, vessel, etc." Here at the aquarium we use a lot of animal remains in our programs and need a word that encompasses such items as bones, skulls, carapaces, feathers, scales, etc., that can be used in written copy of program descriptions. Artifact doesn't work. Is there a single word for such animal parts?

Answer: Oh oh. My usual research method when I get a question like this one is to dial up somebody who works someplace like the North Carolina Aquarium. I have a sneaking suspicion that this ruse is not going to work.

I'm guessing that the exact right word doesn't exist or you'd know it. Artifact is wrong on both sides of the compound. Arti- implies human skill, and -fact implies deliberate manufacture.

And on the other hand, there's this to consider: When you use artifact, I'll bet all the aquarium visitors know exactly what you're talking about. If we coin a new, more precise word, it may be that only you and I will know what you're talking about. We, of course, might feel very smug about how right we are, but I'll bet that that's pretty far from the public information mission of the North Carolina Aquarium. I think we need a bona fide word, or we're better off with artifact. Let me think about this, and I'll get back to you.

Answer 2: I don't know what I was thinking. The word you are looking for is relic. There is even an associated word for a collection, reliquary. I'll bet you wish it were reliquarium.


Question (From an editor with the UNC School of Public Health): I edit a scientific medical journal and have been having a (friendly) running debate with an author over use of the words percent/percentage. Which is correct?

In regions of the United States with a high (percent or percentage) of the population living in high elevations . . .
Most (percent or percentage) reductions ranged from 20 percent to 40 percent.
The national health objective for the year 2000 is to increase to at least 75 percent the (percent or percentage) of U.S. residents . . .

Answer: The dictionary lists percentage as a synonym for percent, so we have to face the possibility that attempting to discern a distinction may be mere hair-splitting. On the other hand, hair-splitting is the Grammar Hotline's raison d'être.

Let the hair-splitting begin. I recommend using percent with an exact number and percentage as a general designator. This generates the sentences as corrected below.

In regions of the United States with a high percentage of the population living in high elevations . . .
Most percentage reductions ranged from 20 percent to 40 percent.
The national health objective for the year 2000 is to increase to at least 75 percent the percent of U.S. residents . . .

This, of course, is not all that riveting, which is why the exchange with your author manages to be friendly. If you're interested in a higher-volume exchange, let the conversation drift into whether to use singular or plural verbs after percent. (The Grammar Hotline Archives covers this question under Questions on Verbs.)


Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate): Is there an easy trick to remembering when to use effect and affect?

Answer: In general, effect is a noun and affect is a verb. This works most of the time.

Unfortunately, however, as you have noticed, in a not insignificant number of cases, effect is a verb, and affect is a noun. The Grammar Hotline regrets this deeply. It would be lovely if the world were tidier.

Maybe you can memorize the exceptions. Effect is a verb only when it means to bring about (The chancellor has a mandate to effect sweeping changes.). Affect is a noun only when the topic is psychology.

My advice is to control half of the exceptions by simply refusing to talk about psychology.


Question: (From a collector in California): Is a collection of Nixon artifacts, literature, and memorabilia known as Nixonana?

Answer: This question has received an inordinate amount of interest in the Grammar Hotline orbit. A word for such a collection does not, of course, currently exist, and it is not often that the Grammar Hotline is permitted to muse about neologisms. In fact, the Grammar Hotline ordinarily takes a dim view of such formations, gagging, for example, at the term sniglet.

A comparable term is clearly Americana, which is a portmanteau word formed from the adjective American and the noun ana, which means "collection." Note that Americana elides the extra "an," which makes it look like the word for collection might be "a."

Nixonana, which you suggest, is a noun plus ana. This is too stark. Grammar Hotline prefers a form where the Nixon part looks a bit more adjectival, namely Nixoniana. Note that this form moves the word stress to "xon." The Grammar Hotline considers this to be marvelously mellifluous.


Question: (From an employee of a tree service): What is the plural of debris?

Answer: Debris doesn't have a grammatical plural in English. If you want to talk about a lot of debris--or if you want to pick it up--you have to gather it into plural piles.

You may be wondering how a grammarian can tell that debris is singular instead of plural. There are two clear signs. First, debris always takes a singular verb: "Debris is knee deep in the backyard." Second, we always refer to it by a singular pronoun: "The debris is knee deep. I don't know what to do with it."

Debris is not the only noun in English without a plural. Collective nouns that define a set of inanimate objects (luggage, dinnerware) are also regularly singular, as are nouns that refer to noncountable masses of substances (bacon, lox).

As Hurricane Fran has taught us, however, debris would be easier to pluralize than to carry to the curb.


Question: (From a sleepy student in my 9:10 class, the day after the time changed): Daylight Saving Time? Why?

Answer: I assume that you are asking about the form of the noun Daylight Saving Time instead of asking me to editorialize about the perversity of a society that would ask you to rise an hour earlier than usual to come to my class.

Daylight Saving Time is capitalized. This is a sign that it is a formal, sanctioned practice.

Daylight Saving is not in the plural. This means that there is no "s" after Saving. This should ring true. Daylight Saving Time makes only a modest claim of its potential benefit.

Daylight Saving is also not in the possessive. This means that there is no apostrophe "s" after Saving. You should find this comforting. It means that there is no conspiracy afoot to steal your time and convey it to someone else's possession.

Daylight Saving Time is generally an open compound. This means that there is no hyphen between Daylight and Saving in the dictionary entry. This is because the dictionary considers the compound to be sufficiently familiar that there is no possibility of misunderstanding the clear connection between Daylight and Saving. The AP Stylebook, the most familiar stylebook for newspaper editing, recommends placing a hyphen in Daylight-Saving Time, but as long as a writer is consistent, there will be little loss in meaning if the hyphen is dropped.

Most sources credit Benjamin Franklin (1784) for the creation of Daylight Saving Time, but no one ever made the shift until World War I, when it was tried as an energy-conservation measure. Evidently it works. Look at how much energy you have saved by distracting me from the course syllabus for today.


Question (From the Internet): What is the # symbol officially called?

Answer: Before there were push-button telephones, it was always called a crosshatch. Now, however, it seems to be called a pound sign. This seems unusual, since I don't think it was ever particularly common to use # as an abbreviation for pound.

Ten years from now, I don't think anyone will recognize the word crosshatch at all. This, of course, will be because we will all then be trapped inexorably in voicemail hell.


Question (From an N.C. State graduate student): My dissertation is on the wetlands. My question concerns the word wetland(s). The dictionary describes wetland as "areas of moist soil." Is the word wetland considered plural without an "s" What are the rules on the verb to use with wetland(s)?

Answer: You will be pleased to learn that you, not the Grammar Hotline, are the more credible expert on this. You are an educated practitioner in the field, and according to the principles of descriptive lexicography, you're the best judge of what is colloquial in the field.

At the risk of contradicting what you haven't said, the Grammar Hotline does not mind weighing in with a judgment for consistent use of the word wetlands as a collective singular noun, a plural noun, and an adjective; which would confine the use of wetland to a generic singular. This rule generates:

The wetlands is an important natural resource.
Wetlands are found in fifteen N.C. counties.
He is an expert in wetlands research.
The hurricane transformed my backyard into a wetland.

The one analogous noun that I can think of quickly is fairgrounds.

The fairgrounds is north of Hillsborough Street
Fairgrounds are often located in state capitals.
He is responsible for fairgrounds management.

Note, however, that fairground isn't the generic singular. This is because we use the word grounds to mean real estate. As you point out, however, the word land is colloquial for noncountable acreage.

The point about land, however, is a red herring. As compounds wend their way into the language, they become less and less dependent--and like--their component parts.

Question 2: Thank you for your response and advice regarding this matter. Your points are very well taken. I actually had formulated some "rules" of my own, but am not sure that they are valid.

Wetland would be used to describe a singular wetland site, being geographically isolated from other wetlands sites, even though the wetland might encompass many acres: e.g. "Umstead Park contains a wetland."

Wetlands would be used to designate multiple wetlands sites (multiple wetlands sites in the state that are geographically fragmented): e.g. "North Carolina has many wetlands."

The adjective form would correspond to the case of the noun it is "modifying": e.g. wetland site, or wetlands sites.

Answer: For the most part, your rules generate the same forms as my rules, but there is one glaring exception: your rule that "the adjective form would correspond to the case of the noun it is "modifying": e.g. wetland site, or wetlands sites.

I urge you to reconsider this. Modern English never declines adjectives to agree with the number of their nouns. The adjectival form is really the crux of your uncertainty, and you need to make an informed executive decision and use it consistently. I recommended wetlands as the consistent adjective in my last message, but I don't feel strongly about the choice. I do, however, feel strongly that that choice must be consistent.

Question 3: Now that I think about it, the example of "The wetlands is an important natural resource" just doesn't sound right. How about "Wetlands are an important natural resource," meaning all wetlands sites (natural resource equals all of the resource, not just one wetland).

Answer: In grammatical terms, you are saying that wetlands cannot be used as a collective noun. I accept your judgment. Collective nouns seem to be on their way out. I'll bet these examples don't sound right to you either:

The faculty have not reached a decision on the curriculum change;
The family do not agree that it is time to terminate life support.

Again, the true editorial principle to be applied here is consistency. Whichever form you choose, if you apply it consistently, your reader will acclimate to your choice and will not be distracted.

I suspect that you may be uncomfortable with this kind of grammatical reasoning from first principles, but I assure you that this is the way the language grows--and has always grown.


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