Most of us haven't thought much about the word chad since the 2000 presidential recount in Florida. The word dominated the news so much back then that the American Dialect Society anointed it Word of the Year. But now the HBO docudrama Recount has brought back memories of chad — taking us back to the innocent days when the word was a novelty even to experienced political operatives.
Here's the key exchange between two Gore staffers, Ron Klain (played by Kevin Spacey) and Michael Whouley (played by Denis Leary):
Klain: How does a thing like that even happen?
Whouley: Because punch card ballots are primitive. You get cardboard chad that get punched, but don't go all the way through the holes so they're hanging off the edge of the ballot.
Klain: Hanging chads.
Whouley: There's no S.
Klain: The plural of chad is chad?
Whouley: That's great democracy.
When chad hit the news, there was a fair amount of discussion about the proper plural form, as in this "On Language" column by William Safire:
[A]ccording to Peter Graham, now university librarian at Syracuse, who served early in his career as a key-punch operator: "We had what we called a chad box underneath the key punch. We resisted calling it 'confetti' because the small bits of paper, when they caught on your clothes, would not dislodge." Graham notes that the noun was then construed as plural, on the analogy of chaff, but today's ballot counters are referring to chads, construing the word chad as singular.
CONFETTI and CHAFF are, of course, M nouns, period, and CHAD is a M noun for some people ("The chad was scattered on the floor"), a C noun for others ("The chads were scattered on the floor") — and some people have both usages.
As Arnold elaborates in a 2001 paper, "Counting Chad," we can only know for sure if chad is truly a plural and not just a (singular) mass noun if it is used in the s-less form in agreement with plurally marked words (verbs, pronouns, and quantifiers), along the lines of "zero-plurals" like moose and sheep:
But there might well be genuinely zero-plural uses of CHAD (parallel to alternations between reindeer and reindeers as plurals of REINDEER, or possibly to zero-plural plural-only nouns like CATTLE and POLICE) as in this AP wire story from 11/28/00 (supplied by Lynne Murphy on the American Dialect Society mailing list):
Chad are the tiny pieces of paper that pop out of a ballot when a voter chooses a candidate.
(The crucial point is the plural verb form are.) It remains to be seen whether the person who wrote this example would also accept sentences like There were many chad on the floor and Only two chad were left to count. In any case, outside of the domain of names of animals hunted or fished for sport, zero plurals are quite rare, so that you wouldn’t expect very many speakers to interpret sentences like There will be a lot of chad on the floor or We ate all the chad as involving a zero plural rather than a (singular) mass noun.
In the Recount screenplay, Michael Whouley's explanation avoids the matter of subject-verb agreement, with:
You get cardboard chad that get punched, but don't go all the way through the holes…
rather than choosing between a singular or plural verb:
You get cardboard chad that is/are punched…
[Update: As Rachel points out in the comments, "cardboard chad that get punched" is indeed a choice of a plural verb. My mistake: I was thinking of "cardboard chad that got punched," which would not be marked for number.]
Then he uses pronoun-antecedent agreement to suggest that chad is a zero-plural for him:
…so they're hanging off the edge of the ballot.
Another word that Arnold considers in his "Counting Chad" paper is spam (in the "unwanted email" sense), which varies like chad between mass-noun and count-noun usage. Spam too may be occasionally found as a zero-plural count noun. The WordPress spam filter used by Language Log currently informs me that
Akismet has caught 284 spam for you since you first installed it.
Here the numeral 284 is a quantifier that could only be used with a count noun, so spam must be zero-plural. (Elsewhere, however, the WordPress interface punts on the issue by saying "Akismet has protected your site from 284 spam comments already.") So it's possible for zero-plurals to creep into domains beyond animal names, but examples are few and far between. On the American Dialect Society mailing list a while back, we discussed zero-pluralization of French loanwords, such as croissant, baguette, and hors d'oeuvre. With those items, it appears that a quasi-Gallic pronunciation without final /s/ leads some English speakers to spell the words without the letter [s].
Any other similar cases out there?