January 03, 2007

Post number 4000

This is Language Log post number 4000. That is to say, the ID number that forms the penultimate part of its filename and URL (before the .html part) is 4000. (Following a common modern practice, I am omitting the comma from 4-digit numerals.) The actual number of posts available for you to read is actually less than 4000 because of deleted posts and posts that were begun and assigned filenames but not finished and published (there are about 3938 accessible posts up at the moment), but I want to pretend it is the 4000th post in order to use this post to make a small pedagogical point about the rules for forming ordinal numerals with bases formed from digits (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc.).

The rules are as follows. You use -st after any number ending in 1 other than those ending in 11, and -nd after any number ending in 2 other than those ending in 12, and -rd after any number ending in 3 other than those ending in 13, and -th as the default everywhere else.
[Historical notes: (1) -nd and -rd were spelled -d in American sources in the 1800s and early 1900s, so you get 2d and 3d. But this seems to have faded away: "the 2d" gets almost no hits now, and most are irrelevant references to 2-dimensionality. (2) The practice of typesetting these suffixes as superscripts was built into Microsoft Word as a factory-set default, and that was one of the many small points that made it fairly easy for the blogosphere to show that the Texas Air National Guard memos that pretty much brought Dan Rather's career to an end were crude and stupid forgeries typed on equipment thirty years too young to have come out of a military officer's office in 1972.]

This is, of course, the same rule that a mystery correspondent in Lithuania calling himself "Becky Miranda" violated in an email to me on September 24, 2004, tempting me to read the message with a Subject line about a "tentative meeting on the 2th", and thus revealed that he was in fact a spammer with inadequate experience in using English. No, Becky, I warned him at that time: The number 2 ends in 2 and does not end in 12, so that would be 2nd (or perhaps 2d for spam sent to American addresses). [Dialect variation note: Actually, Americans tend to have a strong preference for "February 2" to "February 2nd". Nerdy note: Josh Millard points out that it might have been random number selection and sloppy scripting that Becky was guilty of: just picking a random number between 1 and 31 and letting the script put "th" on the end would be right more often than not, and perhaps the spammer just didn't care that much about a few million ungrammatical Subject headers about imaginary meetings going out. Josh is quite right, of course. It could have been programmer laziness rather than grammatical ignorance.]

So if we took the file ID numbers as canonical (which as I said, they actually aren't), then we'd say that the last ten posts on Language Log were the 3991st and 3992nd (or 3992d; by Arnold Zwicky), the 3993rd (or 3993d; by Mark Liberman), the 3994th (by Ben Zimmer), the 3995th (again by Arnold Zwicky, actually appearing earlier than the 3994th through an accident of editing delays, another reason why there is actually a metaphysical difference between post number 3995 and the 3995th post), the 3996th and 3997th (by Bill Poser), the 3998th and 3999th (by Mark Liberman), and this one by me, the 4000th. The next one will be the 4001st, and after that the 4002nd (or 4002d). Not the 4002th, Becky. See?

By the way, Becky Miranda has absolutely nothing to do with the nickname "Beckies" for the new Goropius Becanus Prizes that Language Log plans to announce every year. It is simply one of those strange coincidences, that's all.

[Last revision: January 9. 2007. Thanks to Peter Howard, Chris Lance, Josh Millard, and Mart Kuhn for corrections and comments. Who are these people who say that blogs aren't refereed? They're refereed by everybody!]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 3, 2007 11:01 AM