Trivia Teaser

The population of WHICH US city declined by 25 percent between 2000 and 2010?

Los Angeles
San Francisco
New York

How Singular!


By Miranda

There is (or is it are?) a multiplicity of difficulties in writing clues for crossword puzzles – it's so fatally easy to write a clue you think is perfect, only for it to give an entirely false impression to the person seeking to solve it.

Reading 'Genghis Khan's follower', I get a vision of the great Emperor of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia coming into view over the hill to invade and lay waste another town that's an unfortunate stepping stone in his relentless progress towards the west –and here comes his follower, just the one MONGOL. Well, it's hardly a horde is it?

Similarly, it's difficult to go past 'Robert De Niro's movie' without wondering what happened to the rest of the more than 70 he’s appeared in, not to mention those for which he was the producer. Even if it were a single-word answer, there's Heat, Goodfellas, Backdraft, Brazil, Sleepers, Casino, Showtime and Stardust, just for starters.

I'm not sure why the possessive seems to make what follows it so individual. Maybe it's the same thing that makes the plural of MANSERVANT be MENSERVANTS since, presumably, the nature of a manservant's job is such that he serves only one master and therefore there has to be one man employing each of these personal servants.

But there's no doubt that the clue 'Genghis Khan follower', free of the possessive, somehow allows the singular MONGOL in question to still be one of many, thus allowing the invasion of medieval Europe to proceed. Likewise, 'Robert De Niro movie' acknowledges the existence of his entire oeuvre, though 'Robert De Niro gangster movie' doesn't eliminate as much of it as you might like.

For a word like SHEEP, though, where the plural is the same as its singular form, this doesn't seem to happen. So 'Santa's reindeer' could be any one, or all, of Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, Blixen or Rudolph. Ho, ho, ho!



Comment on this blog 


9 Responses to

How Singular!

December 29, 2009 at 6:07 PM

When we don't know the sex of the person we're referring to, we have little choice but to use "they". For instance: He/she will get a surprise when he/she opens his/her present" becomes "They'll get a surprise when they open their present", which is rather cringeworthy, but in normal speech it's difficult to find an alternative. Any suggestions, Miranda? Or is it just a "singularity"?

December 30, 2009 at 2:15 PM

How weird. I always thought of what you call "Dunder" and "Blixen" as "Donner" and "Blitzen". In fact, that is what I was sure they were, even in English.



Angelica said:
December 30, 2009 at 2:40 PM

Liesl I tend to agree - we might have to get Miranda to check that one for us :-)

December 30, 2009 at 3:38 PM

Absolutely! Donner and Blitzen would be horrified!

daffydill said:
December 30, 2009 at 10:42 PM

I have always known it to be Donner and Blitzen but there is a detailed explanation how the name changed over the years at the following website, if anyone is interested.

December 31, 2009 at 12:59 AM

How fascinating - apologies, Miranda - that article is very interesting, and of course, it explains the change of names. Phew - wrong again. Sorry.

Novista said:
January 01, 2010 at 1:01 AM

Happy HNew Year, y'all, from Far North Queensland. I just want to say, also, Miranda is singular -- I love her words on words.

mondas said:
January 09, 2010 at 4:14 PM

I have come to the conclusion when it comes to speech, reading, writing etc. Some people these days do not really care how they say, read or write it, just as long as they get what they want, from what they have said, read or written. I know a sad comment on some in society but I must say as an Educator I find language skills somewhat at a minimum today. None the less Happy New Year All :) Mondas

ganojomo said:
May 08, 2010 at 2:23 PM

It seems to me that there are a few too many people these days who do not know how to pluralise anything! They make Governor General into Governor Generals (how many are there??) instead of Governors General ... and the same thing happens to Attorneys General, mothers/fathers/any kind of in-laws. It also drives me insane when I see anything pluralised by a comma rather than an 'es', an 's'or an 'ies'. I'm sure the fairy's union would have something to say about it too ... right along with the mother-in-laws!