Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Dear Maple Leafs... don't hit us, please

Dear Toronto Maple Leafs,

We are the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, and we have no wish to create an international incident. Not a large one, at any rate.

Nonetheless, we are writing to inquire if the Canadian school system teaches its children how to construct plural nouns. We confess we are not as well informed as perhaps we could be with regard to your northern ways, though we do a mean Canadian accent, if we say so ourselves, eh?
Alas, we skate around our point. Frankly, you large and toothless hockey players scare us. We have no desire to receive a face-off. While we don’t know for sure what one is, we know it has something to do with hockey, and also that it sounds really painful.

About those plural nouns: Are we perhaps the first to inform you that the plural of “leaf” is “leaves”? If so, we are truly sorry.

Nonetheless, we urge you to stop referring to yourselves as the Maple Leafs. It makes you sound as though you'd taken one too many slapshots to your smartboxes. Maple Leaves has an equally lovely ring, if we say so ourselves.

Perhaps a fresh and grammatical start such as this would be just the thing to earn yourselves a playoff berth next year.

We’ll be watching.

Sincerely yours,


1 comment:

The Mighty Pooka said...

Quoted from http://bradshawofthefuture.blogspot.com/2008/10/grammar-of-maple-leafs.html

Steven Pinker talks about this in chapter 5 of The Language Instinct - in fact he explains why Maple Leafs is pluralized the way it is.

English has two kinds of compounds: exocentric or headless compounds and headed compounds. Headless compounds are compound words where the meaning is not specified by any of the parts:
still life
sabre tooth
Maple Leaf

A flatfoot is not a foot, a still life is not a kind of life, a sabre tooth is not a kind of tooth (it's a prehistoric tiger), and a Maple Leaf is not a kind of leaf. Compare this with headed compounds, where the meaning of the whole compound is specified by the head word:

... which are kinds of houses, boards, and birds respectively.

Headless and headed compounds behave differently. Headless compounds are usually pluralized by adding s. It's as if the headless compound is an indivisible unit, and the plural marker can't see inside it to pluralize it according to the how the head word is normally pluralized. As Pinker says, "If low-life does not get its meaning from life, it cannot get its plural from life either." So our headless compounds above are pluralized like this:
still lifes
sabre tooths
Maple Leafs

and not like this:

still lives
sabre teeth
Maple Leaves

On the other hand, headed compounds form their plurals the same way their head words form their plurals. So the headed compound "maple leaf" - a kind of leaf - is pluralized "maple leaves".