December 01, 2003

Activities centers in Paradise and Santa Cruz

I'm deeply impressed by Geoff Pullum's devotion to linguistic science during his recent field trip to Las Vegas (or rather, as he tells us, Paradise NV). However, there is one aspect of one of his reports which puzzled me, namely the part where he cites a children's "Activities Center" in Paradise as a counterexample to the claim about regular plurals not being allowed as the first element of a noun compound in English. It's not Geoff's viewpoint that I found puzzling -- he's sensible as always, and right as usual. It's the claim itself, recently associated with Peter Gordon (though he is not the originally guilty party).

Using google search of it's easy to find many counterexamples on Geoff's home campus itself. Searching for "activities center," for example, we find two instances, e.g. "the Student Activities Center A-Frame". Looking down a few pages of the list of hits for "foods", we can find "a gourmet wild foods salad", "the organic and natural foods industries", "the Organic Foods Production Act", and "the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Foods Systems (CASFS)". Searching for "goals setting" nets three instances, e.g. "goals setting and career advising". And searching for "publications list" finds 18 examples on the site, including one on Geoff's own home page.

I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to do the same thing on the web site for Peter Gordon's home campus, though I can't resist mentioning the "Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center". The point is, you don't have to go to Paradise to find regular plurals as non-head members of compounds. There's something to be said about when you get such plurals and when you don't -- but those who maintain that you never get them are going through life (never mind Paradise) with their eyes and ears covered up.

Of course Geoff Pullum knows how easy it is to find such counterexamples -- and is aware of the many counterexamples to the claim that have previously been published, some by him. But whenever I read about this, I have to marvel all over again. There are so many genuine and genuinely interesting generalizations about speech and language, and yet sensible linguists like Geoff continue to have to argue against the surprising number of researchers who continue to propose "explanations" for easily-disproved "facts".

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 1, 2003 04:55 PM