Saturday, June 19, 2010


In linguistics we often use the term "marked" to mean a structure or sound that is in some sense more difficult or less common across languages. The "unmarked" structure is the one that is default, typically in a cross-linguistic perspective. Thus you (to my knowledge) never find languages in which the present tense is derived from the past, or in which all obstruents are voiced and all sonorants are voiceless; the "default" tense is past, and the default voicing for obstruents is [-voice]. The term "marked" comes from literal morphological marking, i.e., past tense is literally marked in English by the suffix -ed, whereas the present tense is unmarked (in the first and second person singular). Likewise, singular is unmarked and plural is marked, in that languages add something to signify the plural, or don't change anything, but there aren't any languages (again, to my knowledge) that have an unmarked plural and then add an affix to derive the singular. This should correlate with frequency: unmarked forms and more common and marked forms are less common. Thus in doing a corpus based search for singulars and plurals, you should find more hits for singular forms of a word than plural forms, with a few exceptions for special cases like "pants" and "scissors". So I wondered the other day why I kept adding -s to things while I typing.

I noticed especially that I was doing it on the word "consonant" -- I kept typing "consonants" even when I meant the singular. So I decided to check out COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) to see if I was just weird. (Since this is a blog post and not a research paper, I haven't gone through the effort of determining the percentage of forms that are exactly what I'm looking for; thus the numbers for "consonant" below could include adjective usages as well as singular noun usages.)
  • consonant -- 443
  • consonants -- 323
So at least in this case I do seem to be an anomaly. It's not that "consonants" is used more often in English, like "scissors". Most likely I most commonly use the plural rather than the singular in my own (typed) usage. A word count check on my M.A. thesis confirms this: 75 counts of "consonants", but only 71 of "consonant". This may be because I rarely would talk about a specific consonant, but rather a specific phoneme, whereas I often have cause to talk about the natural class of consonants as a whole, as a subset of the phonemes of a language.

Just for fun, let's see some other COCA counts for singular and plural.
  • computer -- 51,711
  • computers -- 15,832
  • woman -- 130,459
  • women -- 211,930
  • man -- 253,485
  • men -- 157,413
  • scissor -- 102
  • scissors -- 1846
Those show some interesting patterns. "computer(s)" shows the expected pattern, with more than three times the hits for the singular than for the plural. However, we see an interesting difference with "women" -- more than 1.5 times more hits for the plural. My hunch is that this represents a similar pattern as my use of "consonants". People have little need to specify a singular person as a woman; they can just talk about a "person" named Mary. It's apparently when speaking about groups that gender becomes relevant. On the other hand, "men" shows the opposite pattern, with many more hits for the singular, just like "computers". My first thought would be that many of these are interjections: "Man, I'm tired", since much of COCA comes from spoken conversations. However, on looking at the actual results, it looks like very few are actually usages of this type. Another possibility is that many of these represent generic usages, like "the fall of man". But looking over the hits it appears this too is not very well represented, though there are some. I suppose we just have to chalk it up to the fact that in English masculine is the unmarked geneder, and possibly also that despite affirmative action women are still underrepresented in many sections of professional and academic life. "scissors", of course, patterns as expected: only a small minority of people use "scissor" in the singular. In fact, almost all of those hits turn out to be the adjective form, rather than the singular noun form.

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