Anthony Gardner, "Absurd Persons Plural", The Economist 12/12/2012:
Earlier this month I went to a lecture by the American novelist Richard Ford. Called "Why novels are smart", it was brilliant and thought-provoking. But my thoughts were also provoked by the British academic who introduced him, commending—among other things—his "prose styles".
Now, Richard Ford is without doubt a great stylist; but he only has one style. He has honed it over many years, and having brought it pretty much to perfection, he very sensibly sticks to it. So why this mysterious use of the plural?
The same question might have occurred to those listening that morning to BBC Radio 4’s "Start the Week". In the course of a discussion about Germany, one panelist referred to the country’s "pasts". I suppose you could argue that, since the country was divided for 40 years into East and West, it has two pasts—but that strikes me as sophistry. The sorry truth is that we are facing a new linguistic fad: the use of the plural where the singular has always been used before, and indeed would make much more sense.
Specifically, we’re talking about abstract nouns. I first noticed the shift a few months ago when another speaker on Radio 4 came out with "geographies". For a while I thought it might be confined to academia; then I realised that it was creeping into the high-faluting vocabulary beloved of arts organisations. One spoke proudly of its "artistic outputs" and what the public wanted "in terms of outcomes".
When I read this, I wondered whether Mr. Gardner has noticed a real linguistic trend, or whether pluralization variation — in both directions — has always been with us, and his belief in Richard Ford's stylistic uniformity primed him to notice a certain subset of examples.
The evidence of the Google Books Ngram tool is that the rate of pluralization of style has indeed increased — from around 8% a century ago to around 18% today. But the trend has been a long and gradual one, without much recent change:
There have always been perfectly normal reasons to pluralize style, as in the 1898 book A Handbook of Architectural Styles, or the 1947 work that says of Joseph Conrad that "It was perhaps from Polish and French prose styles that he adopted a fondness for triple parallelism, especially in his early works". Since Mr. Gardner's complaint is that someone referred to Richard Ford's way of writing as his plural "prose styles", when the singular would have been more appropriate, looking at pluralization of style in general may not be a good proxy for this case. "His prose styles" didn't make the Google Ngram cut, but "his style(s)" shows roughly the same trend as "style(s), though its overall pluralization rate is much lower, and the last 30 years have been declining rather than flat:
What about the other anomalous abstract-noun plurals that Mr. Gardner noticed? The pluralization percentage of past shows a steadier trend, increasing by a factor of 8 or so since WWII, while remaining at a low enough level that any examples will be striking:
And geography shows a steeper and more recent rise, increasing in pluralization percentage by a factor of 8 since 1980, to a level above 7%:
But output(s) and outcome(s) again show longer-term and gentler trends (though outcome's pluralization percentage has increased by an impressive factor of nearly 50 times, from less than 1% to nearly 46%):
At the end of his post, Gardner foresees a grim future for singular abstract nouns in English:
Virologists tracing the history of a disease speak darkly of the moment when it leaps from one species to another. I believe that such a moment came the morning after Richard Ford's talk when a senior member of the National Health Service used the word "behaviours" on a national news bulletin. I saw too late how misguided my complacency had been: Pandora’s box had been opened, and no amount of wishing would put the contents back. So what lies ahead? Will we be subjected to "contradictory thinkings", "beautiful lyricisms" and "heartfelt mournings"? Almost certainly. The nonsenses of using plurals are merely in their infancies.
Here, I believe, he's clearly suffering from the Recency Illusion:
Still, the particular examples that Mr. Gardner cites have all increased in pluralization percentage, though the trend is mostly on the scale of 50-100 years rather than 5-10 years, much less one day to the next. This suggests that his ear for historical direction is good, even if his sense of time-scale is off. But is increasing pluralization in fact a general trend for abstract nouns in English? Well, it's easy to find abstract nouns whose pluralization percentage has been on the skids for the past century or so:
And there are plenty of others where nothing much has changed.
Given a list of all the English words that someone takes to fall into the category of "abstract noun(s)", it wouldn't be hard to check their historical pluralization percentage(s) in the unigram list(s) downloadable from the Google site — but this is beyond my ambition(s) for this morning.