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Tricky Plurals

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Now that December has arrived, holiday cards are slowly appearing in my mailbox. Well not really, but they’ll be here soon. And every year, I have to laugh a little bit at how some friends, often highly intelligent people, treat my surname in the plural: “The Yates.”

I don’t get offended at this. Furthermore, I tend not to think this is an instance of people being sloppy with their writing. So let’s look at the mistake (and what’s potentially at the root of it) as the substance for a potentially productive essay.

Imagine yourself a speaker of another language trying to learn English. How do you pluralize a noun? In most cases, you add either an ‘s’ or an ‘es’ to the end. But there are noted irregularities, for example ‘children,’ ‘fish,’ and ‘deer.’

Then, there are loanwords from other languages, such as medium/media (Latin), criterion/criteria (Greek), panino/panini (Italian). Because they are foreign words, they follow different rules for denoting plurality. When most people use these words (pay attention next time when you hear them in everyday speech), they may be ignorant of both the etymology as well as the correct inflection when it comes to singularity and plurality. Often you will hear people say “one solid criteria” or “no lettuce on my panini.” Society is pretty relaxed about this on the whole. Every now and again, an article is published by an acerbic purist making a fuss about all the people ordering one panini. But these tend to be exceptions rather than the norm. Plus, it is easier, I submit, to be relaxed about inflection as it applies to loanwords versus so-called ‘natural’ words.

Once we get beyond the way irregular nouns behave—which native speakers either work out by sound or have drummed out of them by adults—we can feel comfortable hanging our hat on an established rule. Moreover, if we need a refresher on the nature of how to make plurals in English, this is exactly what something like the Purdue OWL can help us with. There is no shame in revisiting the fundamentals. English can be a very illogical language at times.

Here’s a pretty simple approach to pluralizing my last name. It should seem obvious to you, I would hope, that tacking another ‘s’ onto the end of ‘Yates’ is not an option here. I have never received a letter addressed in this way. Then, because you should know intuitively that “Yates” is not irregular noun, the only other option available for making it plural is ‘es’.

If it’s so simple, then what’s the problem?

I have not researched the psychology of the breakdown nor have I conducted any kind of longitudinal study based on the formal procedures of social science, but I have a hunch that what happens in these cases is that people write the name and then they have a moment where they lose confidence in how they have inflected. They initially added ‘es,’ (or wanted to) then looked at what they had written (or thought about it) and concluded, “no that can’t possibly be right.” In fact, I have read people’s use of these very words on blogs to describe their reaction after staring at their correctly (but rarely written) surname for the first time. Also, when I was teaching, I used to ask students about my theory informally. Routinely, they would corroborate my thesis with their own experience.

Of course, one option would be for senders to write “The Yates Family,” but I seldom get cards addressed as such. The old adage about it being the thought that counts is certainly true at this time of the year, and I am touch disinclined to ring up for a small time grammar offense someone whose principal aim is to spread holiday mirth. But in the same way that dressing a certain way for a social event gives the attendees of that event the opportunity to judge you, people draw many sweeping conclusions about your intelligence as a result of your writing, even if it’s just a tiny sample. What a shame it would be if they drew the wrong conclusions.

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