Plurals are no easy matter in English. Though a number of verbs are regular, allowing us to add an “s” to the end as in store/stores and stream/streams, many others are irregular, such as sheep/sheep (where the two forms are spelled the same) or mouse/mice (where the two forms are spelled differently). The plural of mouse even led one cartoon cat, Mr. Jinks, to exclaim amusingly that he hated “meeces to pieces,” which not only created a new plural form, but added an “s” just to be sure.
Mr. Jink’s real genius, however, was in creating a rhyme so that he—and we—could remember the plural form. Some psychologists and linguists, such as Iris Berent and Steven Pinker in their article “The Dislike of Regular Plurals in Compounds: Phonological Familiarity or Morphological Constraint,” claim that irregular forms are not handled the same way by our brains—we do not apply rules, as we do for regular forms, but instead recall them as individual units. In short, they must be memorized separately, a real burden for someone learning a second language, for instance.
All of which brings me to the pluralization of hyphenated compounds, such as brother-in-law and certain non-hyphenated compounds, such as attorney general. The plurals are formed by adding an “s” to the first word which is the “main” word or “head”: brothers-in-law and attorneys general. This class of plurals initially seems well-behaved, as long as we can locate the main word on which the others depend. No wonder that an English teacher recently took issue with my suggestion that the plural of stick-in-the-mud is stick-in-the-muds (not sticks-in-the-mud). No, she insisted, I should know that the “s” attaches to the main word, which becomes “sticks.”
But now we have to think about grammatical categories. All the pluralized words we have been considering are nouns. It is tempting to think that “stick” must be a noun, too—but if so, then the image probably would be of a stick poking out of the mud. But the more reasonable derivation is from stuff that got stuck in mud; thus, “stick” is a verb. And if it is a verb, then the “s” goes at the end of the compound: stick-in-the-muds.
What I’ve been discussing demonstrates the complexity that lies just beneath the surface of our language choices—and I have just scratched the surface of plurals. For example, there are nouns that don’t have any plural form at all, such as the word information, an excellent example of a trap for someone learning English by extending the rules of well-behaved words.
Many writers, editors, and teachers have their personal word crusades. For example, I used to avoid “impact” as a verb, thinking that its recent “verbing” from the noun form sounded unnecessarily pompous. But I found out that the use as a verb is much older than I once believed, so there are no grounds for my rejection of it in the work of other writers (though I still can’t use it as a verb myself!). I am more confident when rejecting “disinterested” (which means fair or impartial) when a writer means “uninterested.” The distinction is important: we want our court judges to be disinterested but not uninterested in the proceedings. But however much I would like to save the distinction, “disinterested” has been used in both senses by writers who claim that context clearly signals the author’s intended meaning. Part of effective writing and editing is becoming sensitive to these language shifts.
Writers need to understand grammar, especially if they want their characters to display interesting and rich mental lives. When we understand grammar as correctness, then readers have a right to expect that writers flout rules intentionally in their prose or poetry. Intentional violations of grammatical rules by a writer transmits a message, just as does careful adherence to those same rules (a character who insists on hyper-correctness in speech or thought may be written as inflexible or very proper, as the situation requires). Editors who work with writers must help them figure out the message that the grammar is sending.
But the people who study the structure of language most intensely—linguists—don’t think of grammar as correctness. Instead, linguists generally try to construct a system of rules that can generate all the constructions that native speakers agree are part of the language. One such rule is our ability, at least in English, to embed phrases and clauses. A particularly powerful type of embedding occurs around so-called “intentional” verbs such as “believes,” “feels,” “thinks,” and “hopes.” So we can write, “John thinks that Janice believes that Tom is at home,” without unduly confusing our readers.
These embedded verb constructions are extraordinary: they signal how we are able to imagine other people’s mental states, as well as those people’s mental states about others, and so on. Some linguists, psychologists, and philosophers refer to this ability as a “theory of mind,” suggesting that it is essential to having true consciousness in the human sense (there are lots of arguments about whether any other species have such a theory of mind). These constructions bear on our ability to carry on rich social lives—and it is no accident that gossip sounds a lot like these embedded sentences since gossip really is about keeping track of what others are doing and where we stand in the social hierarchy. Written characters who never gossip are not very familiar creatures.
Grammar in the linguist’s sense tells us that we could embed any number of intentional verbs without limit. But the human memory imposes limits on how many embedded verbs we could follow (“Jim feels that Pam thinks that Joe hopes that Jane believes that. . . .”). Five? Six? Surely there is a limit, yet the limit is not a matter of grammar but psychology. So all this suggests how a writer easily can build an alien mind that nonetheless can be understood on some level (and that’s always a challenge, whether the mind is from another planet or is an Earthling). Any mind that can handle more embedded intentional verbs would be richer and more powerful, and any mind that only can handle one or two would be impoverished.
So are you using grammar to intentionally or unintentionally create real or alien characters?
I just returned from Mexico where the spoken Spanish reminded me of a supposed shift in English: the near disappearance of the subjunctive mood. The term “mood” refers to something that cuts across other categories such as tense. For example, the interrogative mood—questions—can be found in present, past, and future versions.
The subjunctive is difficult to define fully (if you Google “the English subjunctive,” you will fall down a rabbit hole of dense detail), but in general it refers to possible situations, including those that are contrary-to-fact. You no doubt have encountered the advice to change “If I was the emperor, all ice cream would be free” to “If I were the emperor, all ice cream would be free”—the verb form “were” is typical of the subjunctive, signaling that I am not the emperor but nonetheless imagining a world in which I would be. Writers often have trouble remembering when to use the correct verb.
If you have studied Spanish, among other languages, you may have encountered a rich and complex employment of the subjunctive that makes the language very challenging for those whose first language is English. The subjunctive is especially important for anyone who wants to read South American fiction in the original, particularly the Magical Realists such as Borges and Márquez. But for English, according to subjunctive critics, the mood will continue to wither away.
The subjunctive does not require “If . . . then” constructions (called “conditionals), though they are increasingly common. Some language watchers claim that the conditionals are bearing the burden of stating hypothetical situations. But there are other constructions left in English, such as “He suggests that a new employee arrive early” (I’m not sure that “He suggests that a new employee arrives early” can be given a definitive meaning, but if so, it is very different from the first version). But even with conditionals, the use of the subjunctive is subtle. For example, should I write “If he brings a dish to the dinner, the hosts will be upset” (non-subjunctive) or “If he were to bring a dish to the dinner, the hosts will be upset” (subjunctive)? The answer is that in the first it is likely that he will bring a dish and in the second it is less likely (or an unknown probability). And only context can determine which is correct.
Whether the outward grammatical distinctions in English change or not, we still engage in the thinking that underlies the subjunctive. To think otherwise is to believe that there is some direct correlation with the grammar of a language and how its speakers and writers think, a view that is now in great decline. English writers still need to pay attention to the subjunctive mood, whether or not others are in the mood to do so.
Language constantly changes, linguists tell us, remaining in flux no matter how hard self-styled guardians of correctness try to lay barriers against the forces of error. If you engage the services of an editor, you probably expect that the editor will be a guardian, or at least highly proficient in guarding the henhouse from the fox.
The truly proficient editor routinely operates on several levels. For example, an editor might note that, correctness aside, the previous paragraph switches metaphors from a river or flow (“flux”) that can be dammed up (with “barriers”) to the old-fashioned hen-and-fox image.¬¬ But if I write “Nobody edits like he does,” the editor may switch into full guardian mode and insist that the construction should be “Nobody edits as he does.” Indeed, the confusion between “like” and “as” (or “as though”) is at least a century old as are the repeated attempts to correct the confusion.
When I was a child, the famous ad campaign “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” raised many objections from grammarians, none of which dislodged the campaign in the slightest. The voices did, however, convince me that the distinction was worth maintaining in English, reserving “like” for real comparisons. But editors help writers by bringing more than a knowledge of correctness to the work. For example, if a character in a story or novel uses “like” in a familiar conversational manner, then the editor could mar the work by substituting “as.” Even an essay could comfortably allow such constructions if the tone is personal and casual. And a punctilious use of “as” might be used to create purposely a character or persona who is excessively formal or fussy.
The guardian in me wants to maintain a clear distinction between different words. The editor and writer in me recognizes, however, that context sometimes trumps correctness.