Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Frings Is Tasty!

Posted by Neal on August 12, 2004

Aha! I’ve now figured out what I should have said during my discussion of frings with Glen and Dad some eight years ago. All that stuff about telic and atelic verbs was tangential–I should have stuck to nouns, and said something like this…

OK, Glen, I’m not against having a word that refers to a heterogeneous mixture of things. I’m happy with mass nouns like salad, succotash,1 beef stew, fruitcake, and trail mix. Even though a lone vegetable or fruit chunk qualifies doesn’t count as salad, I’m OK using salad to refer to a whole bowl of different kinds of vegetable or fruit pieces. But when you use a word with what is obviously a plural-noun ending (to wit, frings), you are asking me to believe that there is a meaning for the singular (fring), and there isn’t one! I’ll accept the word frings if you can convince me that it’s not really a plural count noun–that the -s on the end isn’t really the plural marker, and the word just happens to end with a [z] sound, like quiz does. You can do that by convincing me that you can say all of the following without having to stop and think about your word choice:
  1. Frings is tasty!
  2. I ate too much frings last night.
  3. Why do I eat frings? It tastes good!

Heh, heh. They’re using frings as a plural and they know it. Faced with this argument, they’ll have to concede!

Well, unless they can find some other example of a plural noun whose singular has no meaning, and cite it as a precedent. They might bring up odds and ends, and the joke about “If you only have one left, how do you know if it’s an odd or an end?” But they can’t make a case here. Even if you can never know whether one out of many odds and ends is an odd or an end, presumably it is one of the two. On the other hand, pick up one item from a plate of frings, and it’ll be either a french fry or an onion ring. It won’t be a fring.

1Thanks to both Dad and the professor for that semantics course for independently bringing up this long-suffering example.

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3 Responses to “Frings Is Tasty!”

  1. Okay, I think I’m gonna win this one. Neal, back on Agoraphilia, you made a post about “troops.” It’s a plural noun that (at least for you and many other English speakers) has no singular, because you can’t have “a troop of one.” Of course, as you observed, a transition is in the making, and soon “troop” will be a legit word for one soldier. But at least for a long time it wasn’t.

    Some other possible examples:

    “Rapids,” as in the fast section of a river. For the definition of “rapid” that relates to rivers, my dictionary says the word is “usually pl.” You don’t often hear about someone who “shot a rapid.”

    “Falls,” as in a cascade of water. For the definition of “fall” that relates to water cascades, my dictionary says the word is “usually pl., often with sing. v.” You don’t often hear someone say, “Look at the beautiful fall.”

    “Politics.” Most people use it with a singular verb, but a respectable minority use it with a plural verb. A Google search for “politics are” yielded 266,000 hits (though I didn’t cull them for phrases like “religion and politics are…”). One eminent example: Winston Churchill said, “Politics are almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times.”

    This is the one I’m least certain about: “Scabies,” the STD, seems to take a plural noun fairly often. A Google search yielded 2100 hits for “scabies are” and 5750 for “scabies is,” so the singular crowd’s in the majority, but the plural crowd’s a significant minority. There were only 69 hits for “a scabie” and one one for “one scabie.”

  2. Anonymous said

    “…transition is in the making, and soon ‘troop’ will be a legit word for one soldier.”

    I was in the Army, stationed in what used to be known as West Berlin, between 1967 and 1970. Those of us stationed there were “Besatzungstruppen,” literally “occupation troops.” As occupation troops, we were entitled to free rides on public transportation while in uniform; all we had to do was identify ourselves as occupation troops when boarding the bus or subway. And the word one used to identify himself as such was “Besatzungstrupp,” an acceptable locution in German — an “occupation troop.” More to the point, I distinctly remember referring to myself, in English, as an “occupation troop,” and I remember at least some of my fellow GIs referring to himself by that term as well.

    The transition of which you speak occurred years ago.

  3. Anton said

    “clothes”

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