"Chad" back in the news

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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: Chad.
Klain: What?
Whouley: There's no S.
Klain: The plural of chad is chad?
Whouley: That's great democracy.
Klain: Jesus.

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.

But as Arnold Zwicky pointed out in a 2006 post, "Plural, mass, collective," this confuses the singular/plural distinction with the count/mass distinction:

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?


  1. Karen said,

    May 30, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

    Back in the 70s when I was in the Army in Berlin we dealt with chad from the keypunch printers. Chad was a mass noun for us. "Sweep up that chad" not "those chads". I knew a guy who was dumping bags of chad into the incinerator and one hadn't been stapled correctly and it opened up and a stream of chad spewed out of the bag ahead of it on its way to the incinerator; it flashed into fire and the flame ran bag to the bag and actually burned him pretty badly. Again " the chad caught fire" not "the chads".

    But chad wasn't a zero plural. It wasn't "chad are all over the floor" but "chad is…"

    Anecdotal, but I remember back in 2000 being baffled by "chads".

  2. Rachel said,

    May 30, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

    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…

    Um, "chad that get punched" certainly looks like a choice of a plural verb to me.

  3. Jangari said,

    May 30, 2008 @ 9:56 pm

    I personally can't see why you can't use paper ballots and pens. I realise they can't then be computer-read, and have to be manually counted, but from the perspective of an antipodean observer, it appears that computerised election counting leads to numerous problems in itself; the environmental and linguistic difficulty of chad being just one example.

    To have my input (and to return to the topic), I consider chad, having only ever rarely heard it, to be a plain old count noun [AMZ: no, *mass* noun], just like the classic rice or water.

    (The) chad is strewn everywhere
    *Chad are strewn everywhere
    *Chads are strewn everywhere
    *One/a chad is strewn everywhere

  4. Garrett Wollman said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 12:18 am

    Computing terms in general seem to be more likely to form odd plurals (see Raymond–1991 pp. 11-12 among other sources). The zero-plural for chad doesn't follow the usual sort of pattern, but it is attested (in Raymond-1991) prior to 2000:

    chad /chad/ n. 1. The perforated edge strips on printer paper, after they have been separated from the printed portion. Also called selvage and perf. 2. obs. The confetti-like paper bits punched out of cards or paper tape; this was also called chaff, computer-confetti, and keypunch droppings.
    Historical note: One correspondent believes char (sense 2) derives from the Chadless keypunch (named for its inventor), which cut little u-shaped tabs in the card to make a hole when the tab folded back, ratherthan punching out a circle/rectangle; it was clear that if the Chadless keypunch didn't make them, then the stuf that other keypunches made had to be 'chad'.

    (The second edition gloss is identical.) Interesting that the definition Raymond thought was current seventeen years ago is now functionally obsolete, whereas the definition he thought was obsolete is still in some sense current.

    More typical hackish/computing plurals, mentioned in Raymond-1991, would be "boxen" (box), "Unices" (Unix), and "frobbotzim" (frob). I can personally attest to the first two, but the second one is unknown to me except as an example of Raymond's. (But note that I work in one of Raymond's source cultures, so I am undoubtedly an outlier.
    A general rule appears to be that "-ix" and "-ex" words can form hackish plurals in "-ices" as in codex/codices, whereas "-Vx" for other vowels words form plurals in "-Vxen" along the model of ox/oxen.)

  5. Dick Margulis said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 7:23 am

    Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chad_%28paper%29#Etymology) cites chad from the 1920s, predating the chadless punch. The various sites repeating the speculation reported by Raymond that the Chadless Printing Reperforator must have been named for a Mr. Chadless, its inventor, would seem to be–how can I put this charitably?–in error.

  6. Sili said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    Errr … isn't "codices" just the regular third declension plural?

    "Unices" must be a proper neologism, though.

    If you want to mock hacker plurals go with "virii", "penii", "octopi(i)" (though The Hat informs me that "octopi" is actually attested in antiquity).

    Sorry for the tangent.

  7. language hat said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 11:43 am

    Actually, it was Justin who informed all of us in that thread, but I'm not sure "octopi" is actually attested — his point was that pôlupoi is attested and all the -pous words show fluctuation between declensions, so that even if that form of octopus isn't attested, it probably existed in antiquity.

  8. JJM said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    Eastern Seaboard WASP prep-school student during geography lesson:

    "If there's a country in Africa called 'Chad', why isn't there one called 'Muffy' too?"

  9. mgh said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

    Does "crap" (or, more politely, "stuff") fit this category?

    I remember a Japanese colleague unintentionally getting a laugh when, complaining to the group about clutter in shared freezer space, she said "Everybody has a lot of craps in the freezer."

    (Strange items were indeed stored in our freezer, which makes the confusion between the literal "craps" and the idiomatic "crap" funnier.)

  10. Crown, Arthur said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

    Jangari wrote, 'just like the classic rice or water…(The) chad is strewn everywhere'

    I agree with this, but for a different reason. Chad, like rice, wheat or hay is clearly a crop that is harvested, in this case at voting time:
    There is drinking and dancing after the wheat is threshed.
    There is drinking and dancing after the chad is swept up.

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

    "Chad" is exactly the sort of object/material that is on the borderline conceptually between something you count and something you treat as an undifferentiated mass. Different languages make the decision differently in borderline cases – head hair is treated grammatically as an uncountable mass in English or German but a collection of individual things in French and Italian; but grapes are an uncountable mass in Italian and individual things in English. In Sardinian many non-human creatures are uncountable masses, so that you say in effect "There is a lot of mosquito out tonight" (which actually nicely expresses the way it feels sometimes). In any case it's not surprising that a rare noun like chad, meaning what it does, would exhibit this grammatical uncertainty.

    @mgh: Yes, "crap" is grammatically uncountable in English, but again you could see this as a semantically borderline case, either in its literal meaning (think of "turd") or in its more usual transferred meaning (think of uncountable "junk" and "stuff", but countable "odds and ends" or "things" or "leftovers"). So it's perfectly understandable that your Japanese colleague didn't know which way to treat this.

    In the original post Ben mentions French nouns with zero plurals in English. Lots of Italian words that are (countable) plural in Italian, like spaghetti, ravioli, etc., are treated as mass nouns in English, but as plural – often with an extra suffix (spaghettis) – in French and German. Meanwhile "panini" (which in Italian is the plural of "panino") has been borrowed into English as a singular, plural "paninis" (variously spelled!).

  12. Dan T. said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 9:44 am

    And I believe the Greek original for the "Gyro" sandwich is "Gyros", with an "s" at the end of the singular form. (What's the Greek plural of it?) However, as borrowed into English, the "s" is generally dropped unless you're ordering more than one of them, even by people who make a point of giving it a pseudo-Greek pronunciation "Yeero" instead of pronouncing it like the beginning of "Gyroscope". (Did the original Ancient Greek use a hard "G" sound, which then got softened to a "Y" sound in modern Greek, and a "J" sound in modern English?)

  13. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 11:06 am

    Discussions of "chad" (and "e-mail" and "spam" and some other nouns) tend to drift into arguments about whether a word *should* be count or mass. People describe their own usage and defend it on the grounds of reason. (Sometimes the first recorded usage is also cited, or the usage that the writer first encountered.) But actual practice is divided for "chad" (and some others): some people have it as a mass noun, some as a count noun, and many have it doubly classified (using it sometimes as mass and sometimes as count, even switching within a passage). Bob Ladd gave a brief explanation above of why this variation should occur.

    Now, most nouns have a single conventional classification as mass or count ("mail" is conventionally mass, for example), but there's nothing wrong with double classification, and in fact double classification has its advantages (see some examples in my 2001 paper that Ben Zimmer cited in the original posting). There's no reason to insist on a single classification for everyone, so long as you're willing to recognize that other people have somewhat different systems from yours — but that should be no great stretch, since you have to recognize variation in countless other aspects of your language.

  14. John Cowan said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

    Bob: History plays a big part too. Nothing looks more countable than ears of maize ("corn" in American English), but "corn" originally meant simply '(staple) grain' (and still does in other English varieties) and Americans still have to say "an ear of corn" rather than "a corn" in consequence.

    Garrett: The up-to-date entry for 'chad' at http://catb.org/jargon/html/C/chad.html says:

    There is an urban legend that chad (sense 2) derives from the Chadless keypunch (named for its inventor), which cut little u-shaped tabs in the card to make a hole when the tab folded back, rather than punching out a circle/rectangle; it was clear that if the Chadless keypunch didn't make them, then the stuff that other keypunches made had to be ‘chad’. However, serious attempts to track down “Chadless” as a personal name or U.S. trademark have failed, casting doubt on this etymology — and the U.S. Patent Classification System uses “chadless” (small c) as an adjective, suggesting that “chadless” derives from “chad” and not the other way around. There is another legend that the word was originally acronymic, standing for “Card Hole Aggregate Debris”, but this has all the earmarks of a backronym. It has also been noted that the word “chad” is Scots dialect for gravel, but nobody has proposed any plausible reason that card chaff should be thought of as gravel. None of these etymologies is really plausible.

    Sili: "Virii" is cracker jargon at best: no true hacker writes that, at least not more than once.

  15. hjælmer said,

    June 2, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    It's also possible that the marked plural with -s only came into use when it was required. Before November 2000 the only people who needed to talk about chad were those who swept it, bagged it, and burned it. After the 2000 election, when the word became relatively common, it rapidly underwent folk analogy to acquire the conventional -s ending. At the same time, "hanging chads" became a convenient shorthand for describing ballots from which the chad had been imperfectly separated. And since the controversy entailed whether those ballots would be counted, the chad itself suddenly became a countable noun.

    It's a different process, but not unlike the distinction between people as a collective without plural marker and people as a countable noun with plural marker.

  16. Dr Benway said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 6:47 pm

    The report in front of me contains this sentence: "His behaviors include property destruction, aggression to others, disrobing, noncompliance (drops to the floor), wandering, and food seeking."

    Years past I would have cautioned the author of such a sentence to avoid "behaviors" as "behavior" is an uncountable noun. But I have grown weak. The tide has turned and "behaviors" now seems generally acceptable if one is speaking of particular types of behavior.

  17. Jim said,

    May 1, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

    To me, "chad" echoes "shad", which is "fish", which is both singular and pural.

    Thus for a give use of "chad", you have to determine by other words in the phrase whether it's a single item or an (uncountable) mass of them.

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