The Word Guy: A zoo of zero-plural questions have no easy antlers |
More Lifestyles

The Word Guy: A zoo of zero-plural questions have no easy antlers

Question: I drive a school bus, and this morning one of my seventh-graders said to me, “Monte, did you see those deers on the side of the road?” I explained to him that certain words, like “deer,” are both singular and plural. Why is that?

— Monte Miller, Simsbury, Conn.

Answer: As a kid, I learned a lot about English vocabulary from my bus drivers, too, but mostly when they were angry with other motorists.

When it comes to forming plurals, English is a whimsical carpenter building an addition. Most of the time, it just tacks on an “s” or “es” (drivers, buses). But, sometimes, it gets carried away and remodels the structure of the original word (goose-geese, mouse-mice).

And, sometimes, it does nothing at all — and then sends you a bill. Nouns that don’t change in their plural forms (called “zero plurals”) include “series,” “aircraft” and “species.” But most zero-plural words refer to animals, e.g., deer, moose, sheep, elk, walrus, antelope, fish, buffalo, salmon.

(Some words, of course, have both zero and regular plurals, e.g., “I saw (bear/bears) in the woods”; “there are many fish in the sea; many of the bony fishes appeared during the Devonian period.”)

Linguists have proposed three explanations for why some animal nouns have zero plurals, but all three, like an antlered antelope attacking a rival, can be rebutted:

1. Game Theory: Many zero-plural words refer to animals that are commonly hunted.

Rebuttal: True, we often do use the singular form when we talk about stalking animals (“We’re hunting rabbit.”), but not for all of our quarry, e.g., “We’re hunting squirrels,” not “squirrel.”

2. Grandfather Clause: The zero-plural words are very old words.

Rebuttal: “Deer” and “sheep” did appear before the 12th century, but so did many animal nouns that form their plurals by adding “s,” e.g., horse, dog, cat.

3. Deutsche Doctrine: Many of the zero-plural words come from German, which rarely forms plurals by adding “s.”

Rebuttal: True enough, “deer” and “sheep” do derive from German (“scaf” and “tior,” respectively). But “moose” comes from Algonquian (a Native American language), and “salmon” comes from Latin via the French.

In fact, no one knows why some words for animals have zero plurals and others don’t. English is mysteriously and delightfully fickle, an enchanted home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play — but the gophers and prairie dogs frolic, too.

Rob Kyff is a teacher in West Hartford, Conn. Send reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, to [email protected] or to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.