May 28, 2006

And the plural of MacBook Pro is ...

Greetings from the youth and popular culture desk here at Language Log Plaza. We also happen to be the ones who take questions regarding language use in the computing industry; nobody else here much cares about it and so our new telephone system just redirects those calls to our desk (following a fittingly recursive route, natch).

Having thrice outed myself as an Apple product fanatic, Language Log reader Jake Seliger recently contacted me directly to ask about how the new line of high-performance Apple notebook computers should be pluralized.

Most Highly Esteemed Professor Bakovic:*

You noted on Language Log that you're fascinated with all things Apple, so I thought you the person to go with a question combining language and Macs.

On Apple websites I've chiefly seen the plural of "MacBook Pro" as "MacBook Pros." Yet I believe MacBooks Pro would be correct as a plural since Pro is just a modifier -- similar to "attorneys general." Is this correct?

Yet when one is referring to the possessive -- concerning the hard drive, for example -- saying, "The MacBook's Pro hard drive died" would, I'm fairly certain, be wrong. So one would say, "The MacBook Pro's hard drive died" instead.

As a result, calling the plural "MacBooks Pro" and calling the possessive "MacBook Pro's" would seem likely to generate confusion.

Is any of this right?

-Jake Seliger

What follows is my reply to Jake's question, suitably edited for Language Log viewing by those of you who may have the same question -- or one very similar to it. (A note to the less fortunate among you who will have to settle for one of the less expensive consumer-level Apple notebooks: they're just called Macbooks, so no linguistic issue for you folks there.)

I think insisting that it should be attorneys general rather than attorney generals (or mothers-in-law rather than mother-in-laws, and other such examples) is a little silly in the first place, and I wouldn't insist on MacBooks Pro over MacBook Pros. There's good linguistic reason for the indecision here: names, titles, and other such labels tend to be analyzed grammatically as compound nouns in English, rather than as phrases. The difference between these two things is in most cases very subtle -- which is part of the problem leading to the issue at hand -- but the following example should help to show that there is one.

Think of the compound noun blackboard, meaning the thing that you write on with chalk. Many blackboards are indeed black in color, but not necessarily; many are green, for instance, but we still have no problem calling them blackboards. On the other hand, take the phrase black board. (The orthographic space between the words only highlights the distinction; in pronunciation, the difference is roughly one of relative stress: BLACKboard vs. black BOARD. Compounds are often, but not always, written without a space.**) A black board cannot be green, and it's not necessarily something you write on with chalk -- it's just a board that happens to be black.

Especially in writing, phrases and compounds often appear to be very similar, as this example illustrates; the differences are mainly things we don't represent orthographically (such as relative stress) and the consequences for meaning: phrases tend to add up to the meanings of their parts, whereas compounds can have specialized meanings of their own that bear less of a relation to their parts. This is what linguists refer to as compositionality: phrase meaning tends to be compositional (transparently composed of the meaning of its parts), whereas compound meaning can be noncompositional.

Another key difference between phrases and compounds is that the parts of a compound can be ordered in ways in which phrases cannot. For example, within a phrase, a modifier overwhelmingly tends to precede the noun that it modifies. (There are particular learned exceptions such as in it came upon a midnight clear, but these are clearly felt by English speakers to be exceptional.) No doubt related, at least in part, to their noncompositionality, compounds can (sometimes) have the order noun + modifier, as in the attorney general and MacBook Pro examples. (Another example like this is bootblack, someone who polishes shoes and boots.)

As you can see, the grammatical rules that are typical of phrases don't necessarily apply in the same way to compounds. The same thing goes for the rule that you're interested in: that the noun part rather than the modifier should receive the plural -s marker. But note that the entire compound in these cases is itself a noun -- they refer to persons (attorney general) or things (MacBook Pro) -- and so the plural -s marker can be thought of as indicating that the entire compound is plural. So, the problem in these particular cases just boils down to the fact that the last part of the compound happens to be the modifier rather than the noun, and so it looks like the modifier is what's being pluralized.

The following diagrams might help. Think of the plural rule as something that says: "give me a singular noun (N), and I'll give you another N with -s attached to it that means the same thing as the original N, except plural rather than singular". Since the compounds you've asked about are Ns that consist of an N and a modifier (M), the plural rule can operate on either of the two Ns, and so you get two possible structures in each case:

-s attached to lower N -s attached to higher N
MacBook Pro
attorney general

So, both possibilities are technically correct. (For some English speakers there may be a tendency not to put things like plural markers in between the parts of a compound -- see for example this paper, p. 19ff -- but that's a separate issue.) I think the reason folks tend to insist on things like attorneys general is because they stop to think about the internal structure of the compound as if it were a phrase.

The possessive marker -'s follows a different rule than the plural, so there's no reason for that to influence one's judgment of MacBooks Pro vs. MacBook Pros. While the plural marker attaches to a single noun, the possessive marker attaches to an entire noun phrase (NP). This is shown by examples like the following (which people sometimes find awkward and often try to rephrase, especially in writing, since there are many other ways to mark possession in English):

[NP This guy I know ]'s sister is a fashion designer.

You definitely wouldn't say this guy's I know sister; possession is marked on the entire noun phrase this guy I know, which happens to end with a verb instead of a noun.

In the MacBook Pro's case, the NP consists of just the compound. So, the relevant structure in such a case would be something like the following.

And that's why MacBook's Pro wouldn't work at all.

Jake wrote back to thank me for this reply, and to give me permission to quote all this -- plus he sent this very relevant link. He also writes:

One other thing to note is the abbreviation issue surrounding MacBooks Pro: online, especially at Ars Technica's Macintoshian Achaia, people tend say "MB" for "MacBook" and "MBP" for "MacBook Pro." As a result, the plural of MacBook Pro becomes MBPs (I usually leave out the apostrophe for plurals). In this case, MBsP obviously wouldn't make any sense because MBP is the entire noun and "Pro" no longer really modifies it.

Final note: it occurs to me that we could just ask the good folks at Apple what they consider more carefully what they think the plural of MacBook Pro should be. When confronted with the fact that Walkmen sounds odd to (most) English speakers, and that Walkmans fails on the supposed analogy with the irregular pair man ~ men, Sony apparently decreed that the plural of their insanely popular product should be Walkman® personal stereos. Whaddayasay, Apple -- MacBook Pro notebook computers???

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* Actually, Jake's message started with just "Hi," -- one of the reasons I've been told that our youth and popular culture desk exists in the first place. I've felt free to translate the salutation on Jake's behalf. [back]

** This is my argument for why the name of the film The English Patient should be pronounced The ENGLISH Patient, not The English PATIENT -- it's a title, hence a compound. Some folks vehemently disagree; for them, I've got a can of Jolt cola right here. [back]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at May 28, 2006 06:26 PM