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A woman drove past me recently in a car with a license plate holder reading “ALUMNI — BOSTON COLLEGE”. It’s a perfectly standard thing to have on one’s car — although BC was a bit of a surprise given that I’m in San Diego –, but it also presented a minor choice point in my day. I could either think of it as totally unremarkable and move on, or I could fret over its grammaticality.*

It looked like this, except mounted on a car instead of floating in a featureless void.

The problem with the license plate holder is a minor one that you’d easily never know if you’re unfamiliar with Latin. I was unaware of it until college, and even then it was perhaps only because I went to a school so fond of Latin as a scholarly language that our degrees were not BAs but ABs (Artium Baccalaureus instead of Bachelor of Arts) and our diplomas were written entirely in Latin.**

Anyway, the problem is that alumni is, at least in Latin, plural. Furthermore, it’s masculine (or mixed-gender). For a single graduate, the Latinally accurate form would be alumnus for a male or alumna for a female. And for multiple female graduates, the Latinally accurate form would be alumnae.

I imagine many of you readers already knew that, but maybe you didn’t. If I’m being perfectly honest, I wish I didn’t. Why? Because I can’t help noticing it. I suspect that a majority of the English speaking population doesn’t think that alumni has even the hint of inherent plurality about it. I’m looking at the Corpus of Contemporary American English right now, and there are 70 hits for “an alumni”, 61 of them in writing.*** That’s more common than “an alumna” and “an alum”, and only 29 hits less than “an alumnus”. Quite simply, singular alumni is standard in all but the most formal of Englishes, and I’m not sure it’s non-standard even there.

Why is singular alumni standard? Because it fits better with English. We don’t really like gender on our nouns (at least not anymore — Old English was fond of it). And we don’t really care about adjusting the plurality of borrowed words, especially not from Latin — see agenda or stamina. Rather than having to remember a fairly idiosyncratic gender/number system, it’s easier to treat alumni as a base singular form with a zero-plural, just like strong ol’ Germanic words like sheep or fish. And it saves university bookstores from having to stock four different license plate holders.

[EX-CUSE: Syracuse Alumni]

It’s a tangent, but this pun is almost enough to make me wish I had gone to Syracuse.

To return to the point of the opening paragraph, I can’t, much as I’d like to, stop myself from correcting singular alumni. It’s not even like it’s a choice, or a conscious decision — I see singular alumni, and my brain says “alumnus” or “alumna”. That much is automatic.

Where the choice comes in is whether I say something about it or judge people for it. In almost every situation, I don’t. For seemingly everybody, singular alumni is acceptable. For many of the rest, they’re okay when it’s used in a reasonable situation (such as when you don’t know the gender of the person buying the item). It’s only in very formal or very edited English (or around close friends who I think will be interested) that I would raise the issue. In other situations, bringing it up would just seem like an attempt to show off my passing familiarity with Latin, which would be a especially pathetic boast.

This is not linguistic whateverism. I’m not saying that editing is stupid or that nothing should be corrected. Editing, I can’t stress enough, is critical. But my point is that for all of you who insist that, say, it’s for its kills you and you can’t stop yourself from correcting it: yes, you can. We’re not beasts; we have self-control. When it’s something trifling, or in an ephemeral setting, or clearly not indicative of a larger ignorance of the language, you can and should let it pass. You’ll be happier for it, and you might even see a drop in your overall peevishness levels.

*: This is a false dichotomy; there is clearly a third way — to base a blog post upon it, thereby spending far more effort than if I had been content to simply complain about its grammaticality. Given that I’m going to berate that choice as a foolish use of one’s time, I’m aware of the irony in mine.

**: In fact, we are so enamored of traditional uses of Latin that to this day the salutorian of the class delivers their graduation speech entirely in Latin. The graduating seniors are given a copy of the speech in both Latin and English, with the Latinate portion marked for where to laugh, cheer, applaud, etc. I don’t think the rest of the audience is given this cheat sheet, thereby creating the illusion that we all speak Latin fluently enough to understand it in oratorical form.

I know, it sounds stupid and pretentious and ridiculous, and it is. But it was also great silly fun to overlaugh at something incomprehensible, sort of like being a member of a studio audience clapping at “APPLAUSE” signs must be. I highly recommend you petition your alma mater to do the same.

***: Many of these are in noun-noun compounds like “an alumni club” or “an alumni trustee”, where the grammatical number of alumni is unclear. Though my original intuition is that it’s being thought of as plural in these cases, English does tend to disprefer plural first nouns in noun-noun compounds (cf. mousetrap, cowcatcher, leafblower). Also, if one were to replace alumni in these compounds with some standardly pluralized noun like student, it’d be “student club”, not “students club”. Thus, I’m inclined to think of these examples as further, though weaker, evidence of singular usage alumni.

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Is this a valid sentence?

I’m running into a ridiculous amount of people at Ala Moana.

I found it on Twitter, and I don’t know what Ala Moana is, but let’s press on all the same. My real question is whether amount of people is acceptable. Think about it, and while you’re thinking, let’s talk about count and mass nouns.

The distinction between count and mass nouns is a core feature of noun usage in English. It’s brought up in less academic contexts most commonly in rage against the express lanes of supermarkets, where the “15 items or less” sign generates incessant grumblings about how it needs to be “fewer”. (This is not a position I agree with.)

The distinction is simple to state, but not necessarily simple to enforce. There are count nouns, those that refer to distinct, countable, pluralizable objects. Count nouns are things like arc-welders, wallabies, prickly pears, or people. You can say things like I have forty-five arc-welders in my garage. Mass nouns, on the the other hand, are objects that are not really countable, that don’t come in quantum units, and generally don’t get pluralized. These include sand, tofu, air, and sulfuric acid. Abstract nouns are especially likely to be mass nouns; think of independence, prosperity, or music. You can’t say something like I have two prosperities in my garage. Pretty easy, right?

Well, the trouble is that countability isn’t as cut-and-dried as it seems. For instance, mass nouns can be converted to count nouns when certain pragmatic conditions are met. One way to do this is to specify a unit size, as in:

(1a) There’re four two-liters of Mountain Dew in the garage.
(1b) Greg managed to get a single grain of sand under his fingernail.

Something that I find neat is that mass-to-count conversion can happen as a zero-transform, a conversion that is not explicitly marked. This happens when the mass noun has a pragmatically salient unit division. You’re probably familiar with this in restaurants; I went out with some friends the other night, and three of them ordered Diet Cokes. When the waiter returned to our table, he said

(2) Okay, three Diet Cokes.

To which my one friend responded

(3) I’ve got one.

In this situation, there is a pragmatic quantum of Diet Coke, the refillable glass delivered by the waiter. (I don’t think in my wildest daydreams I ever believed I would ever write the phrase “pragmatic quantum”, but there it is.) Because this quantum is salient to everyone involved, there’s no need for an explicit converter like “three glasses of Diet Coke”.

Conversions from count to mass are possible as well, but they’re a little more subtle. Mass-to-count conversions arise when separating a mass; the count-to-mass conversion arise when aggregating something separable. You can tell when these conversions are being made because fewer won’t sound right. (Normally, fewer is used with count nouns and less with mass nouns.) Consider these two sentences:

(4a) There’re four less/fewer dollars in my wallet than I expected.
(4b) The pants were four dollars less/?fewer than I expected.

In (4a), I would use either less or fewer, with a slight preference perhaps for fewer because I’m thinking of the dollars as individual bills. In (4b), I would solidly prefer less, because the cost is an aggregated amount. The count noun dollars is converted into something more mass-like. But note that the conversion isn’t complete; the dollars remain countable as well. This is the same thing that’s happening with 15 items or less; the grocery objects are being thought of as a mass, even though they still look count-y.

[Bunches of bananas]

Five bananas in a single bunch would be considered a single 'item', a subtle count-to-mass-to-count transformation.

All of that in mind, let’s look at the Twitter sentence again. It was (5a), but should it be (5b)?

(5a) I’m running into a ridiculous amount of people at Ala Moana.
(5b) I’m running into a ridiculous number of people at Ala Moana.

In general, the rule is that number of goes with count nouns and amount of goes with mass nouns:

(6a) I’m drinking a large (amount of|*number of) milk as part of a bet.
(6b) I’ve run afoul of a large (?amount of|number of) rules today.

So that suggests that (5b) is the better choice. But if you’re like me, you’ll find an asymmetry in (6). Number of is straight ungrammatical in (6a), but amount of is at worst awkward or non-standard or informal in (6b). That’s because count nouns can be thought of as in aggregate more easily than mass nouns can be thought of as individuals. Going back to (4b), when we think of normally-count nouns as an aggregate, they can take on mass nouns agreement — by which I mean the use of less rather than fewer, much rather than many, and amount of rather than number of.

In fact, there are instances where one may want to choose between amount of and number of in order to push the audience toward the more or less aggregated interpretation. Consider this sentence from a 1940 book, quoted in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU):

(7a) […] we could absorb a vast amount of South American products.
(7b) […] we could absorb a vast number of South American products.

The aggregated usage in (7a) suggests that we are talking about how much South American production (of any number of goods) can be absorbed. The counting usage in (7b) suggests we’re talking about the number of types of South American products that can be absorbed. A specific version of (7a) might read absorb 7,000 pounds of SA products; for (7b), it might be absorb coffee, cattle, and cacao.*

Furthermore, the use of amount of with count nouns is well-established throughout the last 200 years. The OED’s first example is from 1801: “A number of little birds, to the amount I believe of twelve or fourteen.” (Amount as a noun only dates back to 1710, by the way.) The MWDEU notes that it’s only in the last hundred years or so that anyone complained about amount of with count nouns; it also notes that the condemnation begs the question. The basis for the argument that amount of is inappropriate for count nouns is nothing more than stating that it’s inappropriate with count nouns, and that’s clearly not true, given examples like (7a). Amount of is certainly awkward when the count noun isn’t aggregated (*the amount of parents I have is two), but it’s fine, or sometimes even preferable, when the count nouns are aggregated.

So in the end, is amount of people okay? Well, yes, especially if you’re thinking of the people as a teeming mass of humanity (a count-to-mass transformation), or a bunch of undifferentiated people getting in the way (an aggregation) when you’re visiting the largest open-air shopping center in the world (I finally looked up what Ala Moana is).

Summary: Amount of with a count noun is at worst a bit informal, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with using them together. The combination is useful for suggesting that the pluralized count noun is best thought of as a mass or aggregation, so you ought to let yourself use it when it’s useful.

*: (7a) was the original, if you were curious. (7b) is concocted.

Google+, Google’s answer to Facebook, has been generating a ton of buzz in its brief invitation-only phase. That’s about all I know about it; I’ve intentionally been avoiding investigating further. It doesn’t have FarmVille, so what’s the point? But I’m on Twitter too much to avoid Google+ entirely. I’d been getting 140-character updates about its importance or awesomeness from a variety of sources, but what finally got me to look into it was an update from an unexpected quarter: Ben Zimmer, with a tweet about the morphology of +1.

The +1 button on Google and Google+ is basically a generalization of Facebook’s “Like” button, indicating “what you like, agree with, or recommend on the web.” The trouble is that users are going to want to use +1 in more general contexts, treating the word* +1 as a stand-alone noun, verb, and so on. This already happened with Facebook’s Like, and there it was a pretty seamless process, since the new meaning of like could piggy-back on the morphology of the existing word like, resulting in likes, liked, liking, etc.

+1 doesn’t have this same ability, at least in text. Plus-one exists as a word in English, referring to “A person who accompanies another to an event as that person’s nominated guest, but who has not been specifically invited” (OED) — e.g., your date for an event. This word has its morphology basically worked out (plus-ones is used in the OED’s first attestation, back in 1977, and here’s an example of “plus-oned the alloys”, whatever that means). The trouble, though, is that the word isn’t written plus-one; it’s written +1. The pronounced forms are all worked out, but the written form is unestablished.

Credit is due to Google for recognizing this and wanting to establish the conventions. In their +1 help, they explain their spelling conventions, in which the morphologically complex forms are formed with apostrophes — +1’s, +1’d, +1’ing — rather than the plain forms +1s, +1d, +1ing. In so doing, they raised the hackles of some grammarians, so let’s look at each of the forms individually to try to explain the choice.

+1’s. Apostrophe-s is a standard way to pluralize nouns with strange forms, such as letters, numerals, acronyms, or abbreviations. This introduces ambiguity with the possessive form, but it avoids other ambiguities (such as pluralized a looking like the word as) and often looks better (I think Ph.D.s looks weird). Thus we see mind your p’s and q’s, multiple Ph.D.’s, and Rolling 7’s and 11’s. +1 ends in a numeral, so it’s not unusual to write it as +1’s instead of +1s, although either is acceptable. (For more on apostrophes in plurals, see this old post.)

+1’d. Apostrophe-d for the past tense is not as common as apostrophe-s for the plural, but it’s certainly not unheard of. Fowler’s Modern English Usage favors it for words ending in a fully pronounced vowel — forming mustachio’d instead of mustachioed, for example — in order to avoid a strange collocation of vowels clogging the end of the word. However, this appears to be a minority position; mustachioed generates about 35 times more Google hits than mustachio’d.

"Wait, lads! Am I being shanghaied or shanghai'd?"

Apostrophe-d used to be a more general suffix, up until around the middle of the 19th century (judging by the Corpus of Historical American English). In Middle English, the -ed suffix was always pronounced with the vowel, and in Early Modern English, the vowel was optional in some words where today it is obligatorily omitted. If you’ve ever heard someone described as learned, pronounced /learn-ED/ instead of /learnd/, you’ve seen one of the few remaining vestiges of this alternation. With variation, it was useful to have different written forms to indicate whether the vowel was pronounced or not.

I first learned of this reading a Shakespeare play in which certain words were written as, for instance, blessèd, with an accent indicating that the second e was to be pronounced so that the meter of teh line was correct. To clarify cases where the vowel was not to be pronounced, poets and playwrights would sometimes vanish the e into an apostrophe. This edition of Hamlet, for instance, includes both drowned and drown’d on the same page when different characters are talking about the death of Ophelia:

Queen: Your sister’s drown’d, Laertes.
Clown: Argal, she drowned herself willingly.

But historical usage is dead, so perhaps the more relevant comparision is looking at other numerical verbs. The only one that’s coming to my mind is 86, meaning to eject or reject something. Looking around, I see both 86’d and 86ed used, with 86’d appearing to be a bit more common. The Wikipedia entry for 86 only has 86’d attested, and there’s also a book titled 86’d. At the very least, 86’d is an acceptable variant, and seemingly the more common as well. In that case, it’s not surprising that Google would choose +1’d over +1ed or +1d.

+1’ing. Lastly, we have the present participle. There isn’t a historical component to this usage like there was for the past tense. The apostrophe-ing form is attested for 86, appearing in the book Repeat Until Rich, but 86ing without the apostrophe looks to be a little bit more common on the web as a whole.** The trouble is that 86(‘)ing just isn’t well-attested in either form. Unlike the plural and past tense, there isn’t much of a precedent for apostrophe-ing, and in fact there doesn’t seem to be much of a precedent for the present participle of a numeral in general. I think that the choice to include the apostrophe in the present participle was made strictly for consistency’s sake; I doubt many people would prefer the paradigm +1’s, +1’d, +1ing to the more consistent one they chose.

The future. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what Google says, just as it doesn’t really matter what Strunk & White or Fowler or I or any other language commentator says. Language is what people do with it. Personally, I suspect that the apostrophes will disappear fairly quickly. Even in typing this, I kept on being annoyed that I had to send a finger out in search of an apostrophe. When you’re writing something often, you want to toss out unnecessary stuff — Facebook is a good example of this; when I first ended up on it back in 2004, you still had to type thefacebook.com to get to it, but that unnecessary the was quickly lost. As people become more familiar and comfortable with +1 and its inflected forms, the need (and the desire) for the apostrophes will ebb, and I think we’ll see +1s dominate. In fact, even typing +1 is kind of a pain (I keep accidentally typing +!), so I wouldn’t be surprised to see plus-ones, or even pluses, eventually become the standard.

*: I’m going to call +1 a word in this post, though you may find it more of a phrase. The key point is that it has a specific meaning that is not a simple sum of its component morphemes (plus and one), and that makes it word-like for my purposes.

**: 86’ing doesn’t appear in the Google N-grams corpus, suggesting it appeared less than 40 times in a trillion words. 86ing appears there with 962 hits.

Yesterday I re-stumbled upon an old grammar worksheet from David Foster Wallace in which he had his students try to correct sentences that largely didn’t need correcting. I’d first been introduced to it way back in 2009, at which point I complained about its infelicitous “correction” of a split infinitive. That bit of baloney was so egregious that it made me overlook another silly claim, one nearly as common as the split infinitive rule, and nearly as mistaken as well.

Jack Dempsey fighting some dude

Are these two boxers trying to hit one another?

The claim: that each other is to be used exclusively with two objects, and one another exclusively with three or more. This is a pretty widespread claim. Perhaps it speaks to some unconscious desire by English speakers to exhibit a form of the dual/plural distinction, since some people also insist that between and among are to be used for two and more things, respectively. But just as the between and among distinction is a bunch of made-up hooey, so too is the each other and one another distinction.

The claim has a pretty long history; the MWDEU (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage) tracks it back to George N. Ussher in 1785. He stuck with that idea, including it in a grammar booklet in 1803 as well. Some subsequent commentators accepted this rule, others rejected it. Still others proposed alternate criteria for differentiating the phrases, such as Thomas Marsh’s 1862 idea of “the former [each other] applying to a limited, the latter [one another], to an unlimited number”. Only Ussher’s proclamation has stuck around.

Of course, none of these proposed separations are valid, neither in current English nor in that of any other time. Examples of famous and well-regarded writers using one phrase where supposedly only the other could go, even in formal writing, are plentiful. The MWDEU lists Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, and Bishop Lowth among others; the OED offers Shakespeare and Caxton as well. To hammer home the point, I’ve found some examples of both phrases being used in the same sentence to refer to the same set of things:

“The Genoese and Piedmontese, therefore, although both Italians, and living within a few miles of one another, detest each other as cordially as the Spaniards and the French.” [1821]

“[…] the two aged actors upon this great theatre of philosophy and frivolity embraced each other by hugging one another in their arms, and kissing each other’s cheeks; and then the tumult subsided.” [1865]

“[…] the parts of the coils nearest each other tend to neutralize one another […]” [1887]

These aren’t rare instances, either; more examples from any time period you’re interested in can be found by searching for “each other * one another” in Google Books. We can even do one better by finding a sentence in which the two phrases can directly alternate. Thanks to the many competing English translations of the Bible, we can find different ways of saying the same thing. Here’s Ephesians 4:32 in two translations:

(1a) Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. [NIV]
(1b) Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [NLT]

I’ll confess I got a bit giddy when I found that. They’re both equally well-formed usages to me, they show that the two phrases are interchangeable, and it’s another chance to say “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” in the linguistic arena.*

There are likely some minor differences in usage between each other and one another, of course. The only one I can say confidently is that each other is more common; Google N-grams has it appearing around twice as often, and COHA has it almost four times as often. Perhaps influenced by its relative rarity, I find one another to be stiffer than each other, but I don’t know if this is a generally-held position.

There’s one thing I’d like to know, but not enough to actually perform the analysis, and that is whether each other is indeed preferentially deployed in situations with only two objects (and vice versa with one another). I’ve no data pointing either way, nor an impression from other people’s usage if this is actually the case. But at this point, it’s nothing to worry about; at strongest, we’re talking about a preference, not a rule. If you want to maintain this distinction in your own English, I’m not going to say you can’t. But don’t get confused and think others ought to obey your whims.

Summary: Despite claims to the contrary, each other and one another are both acceptable whether you’re talking about two or more than two objects. English usage never observed the supposed rule, and great writers broke it often. In fact, the two forms can alternate with one another.

*: Just to be clear, I do not actually believe that examples pulled from religious texts should hold any special place in informing our linguistic judgments.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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