August 21, 2006

No plural shifting term

I just popped down to the Starbucks on the ground floor at Language Log Plaza and found when I got back to my corridor that the place is buzzing with a new problem from Caroline Henton and Wade Dowdell: the (supposed) problem of finding a term for shifting the "s" to the end in plurals like "WMDs" (compare "Weapons of Mass Destruction", which some people seem to think might suggest one would have expected the "s" before the "M"). I wish people would just wait for me to come back up with my latte and ask me. I have the answer. It is that there is no term, and there won't be one, and there shouldn't be, because there is no shifting here. The problem arises purely from a misapprehension.

There is a process of forming new nouns by concatenating initial letters of phrases. The process is called "initialism" in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (chapter 19, pp. 1632-1634). There are varieties of initialism: acronyms like SARS or UNESCO and abbreviations like BMW or WMD. But both kinds simply form nouns (they're discussed in our chapter on lexical word formation). So once WMD is a noun, its plural is formed in the usual way: "s" on the end. There is no "transference of position" for the -s suffix. That's why there's no special name for such transfer. WMD is just a noun pronounced "double-you-em-dee". Its plural is regular, and naturally, it sounds like "double-you-em-deeze". In the written form, you just write the abbreviation (or acronym) in capitals and add a lower-case "s" on the end.

(In rare cases an apostrophe is used too, if the look of it would be highly confusing otherwise: you don't write "is" for the plural of the word "i", a one-letter initialism denoting the 9th letter of the alphabet, because it would look like the 3rd singular present tense form of BE; so you would write "I remember there were two i's in his name." But that is the exception. Most plurals written with apostrophes are merely a consequence of — there's no gentle way to say it — illiteracy.)

Just ask, OK, guys?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 21, 2006 06:20 PM