May 26, 2004

We Have Deer and Elk and Bear and Mice Around Here

A true statement, because I'm currently in the woods of northwestern Montana, but it's not the truth value that interests me here. I'm reading a fascinating (no kidding!) book called Wild Logging: A Guide to Environmentally and Economically Sustainable Forestry, by Bryan Foster, and at one point (p. 23, to be exact) he lists the wildlife found on a 160-acre tree farm in northeastern Oregon, including the following:

Mammal sightings: black bear, bobcat, cougar, white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, chipmunk, ground squirrel, flying squirrel, snowshoe hare, mice, and vole

What's interesting is the zero-plural-for-game-animals usage in this list, except for those mice -- which aren't game animals, of course, but then, neither are voles and chipmunks. That is, as is typical in discussions of game animals, all the terms are treated as if they were structurally parallel to deer, with plural identical to singular. Surely those animal sightings are multiple, not a single member of each species (well, except maybe for rarely-seen animals like cougars).

My first thought was that the asymmetry between the plural form mice and the singular forms vole, etc., must have basically the same motivation as the parallel asymmetry in certain types of compounds, discussed, I think, by Peter Gordon: mice-eater but rat-eater, with *rats-eater impossible.

But maybe not, because as I recall (and I might be misremembering), Gordon's explanation for the asymmetry in compounds had to do with late vs. early plural formation, depending on whether it was the default regular plural (as in rats) or an irregular plural like mice; and that wouldn't be relevant for the list in the logging book. I also don't think the asymmetry is an idiosyncrasy of this author, because it sounds fine to me, and replacing mice with mouse doesn't. So what governs this pattern in the list of mammal sightings? I'm hoping that a blogger with more insight into English grammar than I have will provide The Answer.

(Notice that the singular in the compound noun mousetrap isn't a problem in this context, presumably because most mousetraps catch just one mouse at a time, whereas a creature that eats mice is likely to want more than one.)

Posted by Sally Thomason at May 26, 2004 12:11 PM