« previous post | next post »

Philip Spaelti wrote:

I was struck today by a *plural* s in a headline in Slate: "A tale of two Flint, Michigans"

I agree that "Flints, Michigan" sounds strange (stranger?), but it's still striking. One might argue that Flint, Michigan is a single name, but I'm wondering about the prosodic shape of the phrase. I feel that I pronounce this as two phrases.

But "two Flint, Michigans" is obviously correct, as Philip notes, even though this intuition does seem a bit bizarre at first. Presumably this is the same as other appositive nominal constructions ("two Conan the Barbarians", "three peach melbas", "four Cafe Carolinas", "five Macbook Pros"), though not other sorts of post-modification ("six hens in aspic", "seven attorneys general", "eight swans a-swimming"). See here and here for some further discussion.

Anyhow, there's other noteworthy aspect of this headline, namely the "Tale of Two Xs" template. This was presumably elevated to cliché status by Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and now if you search the NYT index for "a tale of two", you get 4,810 results, of the which the first few pages yield (mostly headlines) discussing "A tale of two__"

artists, brothers, cab drivers, cafes, coaches, companies, congressmen, countries, delis, detectives, drop-kickers, drug problems, eras, golfers, families, federal sentences, fish, fishermen, horses, houses, Irelands, locker rooms, low-budget houses, Martha's Vinyards, moralities, novels, operas, playwrights, power plants, prices, pylons, tells, travelers, trials, turkeys, schools, shores, sisters, views, villages, volcanoes, …

In fairness, many of those 4,810 hits are actually the original "Tale of Two Cities". But searching Google News for {"a tales of two" -cities} yields a claim of 23,600 results. The first few pages include tales of two __

Aarons, abortion expansions, Avrahams, bank of Japan governors, black hairstyles, boardwalks, bond deals, California shrines, campuses, Charlies, Chicagos, Chiles, cloud migrations, concentration camps, conferences, cultures, dynasties, eateries, economies, eras, expensive central defenders, file sharers, first downs, food bank vouchers, football teams, governors, halves, hitters, indexes,  lives, naughty boys, neighborhoods, nines, office cultures, online business models, PV test labs, revolutions, sites, sons, speeches, statements, studies, subway-style mediterranean joints in Tempe, teachers, trials, turnovers, tweeters, very different banks, worlds, zip codes, …

And in looking for early examples closer to the "Flint, Michigans" case, I was reminded of the old journalistic practice of referring to sports teams with a plural form of the city or state of their origin, e.g.

Or again:

This practice involved not only to referring to the White Sox as "the Chicagos", or the Orioles as "the Baltimores", but also to the University of Michigan's football team as "the Michigans", or Penn's crew squad as "the Pennsylvanias". An analogous practice applied to non-geographical university names, so that teams from Harvard were "the Harvards", and those from Notre Dame were "the Notre Dames".

For some reason, this use of plural city, state, or institution names seems to have died out in the late 19th century, replaced by collective singulars ("Chicago shut out New York") or by plural forms of team (nick-) names ("the Yankees", "the Orioles").

Update — The old city-name plural surfaces occasionally, as in this recent story: Matt Wilstein, "Did ESPN Announcer ‘Inadvertently’ Call D.C. Redskins ‘The Washingtons’?",  Mediaite 9/17/2013.



  1. SCF said,

    September 22, 2013 @ 8:34 pm

    Love Chicago as verb in the last headline. I was about to ask but saw this discussion:

  2. David Morris said,

    September 22, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

    In Australia, 'attorney-generals' is common in mid-register, everyday, 'normal' government/legal spoken English. 'Attorneys-general' is high register/formal, maybe spoken in political speeches or news reports, and certainly written in government documents.

  3. pj said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 2:36 am

    Is 'CHANCKS' in the first newspaper extract a typo for 'chances', or something altogether stranger?

  4. Stephan Stiller said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 3:18 am

    I am reminded of the plural "lingua francas", which to me is correct and the best choice.

  5. F said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 3:36 am

    pj: If you look closely, it is clear that the word is "CHANCES", imperfectly photocopied/scanned. Compare the shape of the "K" in the first line, which is in the same typeface.

  6. Adam Roberts said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 4:38 am

    I once had a discussion with a friend as to whether the plural of 'human being' shouldn't be 'human beings', but should instead be 'humans being'. The friend favoured the latter, which has a certain charm to it, I think. Though obviously it's not the plural people use.

  7. GeorgeW said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 5:24 am

    I think the 'attorneys general' construction is because 'general' is analyzed as an adjective where 'attorney generals' is analyzed as a compound noun.

  8. pj said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 5:45 am

    @F – oh, it is, isn't it? It's an extremely seriffy E that leads to the possibility of confusion when its top and bottom bars don't print clearly.

  9. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    'Human beings' seems to be a perfectly straightforward adjective + noun, 'beings who are human', so the -s rightly comes at the end. 'Humans being' presumably involves an analysis of it as 'humans who exist', which I guess is possible, but rather surprising.

  10. peter said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 7:40 am

    Surely the correct plural is humen being.

  11. Faldone said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 7:53 am

    Depending on the date of the newspaper article the CHANCES may have referred to the Chicago National League team under the manager Frank Chance. It was not uncommon to refer to a team by the name of the manager.

  12. SamC said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 8:00 am

    @Adam Roberts
    Um… "humans being" doesn't make any sense, since "being" is the noun and "human" the adjective (a being who is human). So not only is it not what we use, but it wouldn't make any sense grammatically to do it.

  13. Faldone said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 8:03 am

    And the "White Sox" would probably better read, "White Stockings", the name of the team who later became the Cubs.

  14. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 8:15 am

    The comma is what is jarring in the "Flint, Michigans" example. If you heard it on NPR as "Flint Michigans" with no pause between the words you might not think twice.

  15. Linda Seebach said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 9:02 am

    I think I'd have written ". . . two Flints in Michigan."

  16. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 9:11 am

    Another plural example which is, I think, analogous, is 'the Miss Lucases and the Miss Bennets'.

  17. Eric P Smith said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 9:16 am

    @Jeremy Wheeler: I agree. In addition, at least in formal contexts in the UK, we sometimes get 'the Misses Lucas and the Misses Bennet'.

  18. Charles Wells said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 9:24 am

    "I can't remember the King of Denmark who Bluetooth is named after's name." OK, people don't say that because it has too many words in the phrase to be comfortable with, but people say shorter versions of that sort of thing. Lord Dunsany wrote a book called The King of Elfland's Daughter, for example.

  19. Mr Punch said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 10:03 am

    The "general" in "attorney general" is an adjective. In Massachusetts another constitutional office is "state treasurer and receiver general." I've heard an AG (but not a treasurer) addressed as "general," which I guess is like calling a minister of the gospel "reverend." The military rank has made the transition to noun, though.

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    Because "Flint, Michigan" has a unique referent, it shouldn't really have a plural at all unless it is being used in a loose metaphorical sense, so I suppose it should be unsurprising that attempts at pluralization will be ad hoc and lead to trouble. Moreover, since the Flint in Michigan is probably much better known than the smaller places by that name in other U.S. states and the context was clear from the first sentence of the story itself, I'm really not sure what would have been problematic about the hed "A Tale of Two Flints."

    I myself use the plural form "The Misses SURNAME" (or e.g. "the Doctors SURNAME," when both husband and wife have doctorates), but only in formal and/or semi-jocular contexts. (E.g. I've used "the Misses SURNAME" on the envelope when inviting a pair of twin girls to a birthday party for one of my daughters.) It seems slightly parallel to saying "Messrs. A &B" rather than "Mr. A and Mr. B."

  21. Rodger C said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    To me "A Tale of Two Flints," without context, would be a story about two pieces of silica.

  22. Circe said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 11:49 am

    @Adam Roberts

    Humans being what they are, they will keep referring to themselves as human beings.

  23. Dan T. said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

    And "Chicagoed" is also conjugated as a verb in one of those articles. That article also is inconsistent about whether the sport name is "base ball" or "baseball".

  24. Faldone said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

    @Dan T.

    It was originally base ball and went through a period when it was base-ball before settling down as baseball. There was a period when all three versions were in use, but I was previously unaware of more than one version being used in any one publication. I guess style manuals weren't that strict in those days.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

    For some reason, "Flint, Michigans" reminds me of "picker-upper" and the like.

    Charles Wells: As I recall from childhood, The King of Spain's daughter / Came to visit me.

    But as you say, there are also a few hits for "named after's", such as "Couch Street is pronounced that way because the guy it's named after's name is pronounced that way" (footnote) and "Pretty much the only name I'd use out of my family is my sister Regina, that I'm using for my next girl, and the woman I'm named after's middle name is Marie." (footnote). (Note the non-restrictive "that". The author of that quotation lives in Finland, but from her English and the names involved I feel sure she's a native speaker of English.)

    I liked "The Chicagos to-day showed that they can play baseball occasionally…." Journalists were misplacing adverbs of time even back then. And did they already sing the blues in Chicago when baseball season rolled around?

  26. quodlibet said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

    @Faldone –

    Actually, an even older form is "base" – I wouldn't dare to call it "original". On the other hand, in my lifetime "play ball" and "ball game" have always meant baseball, not football or basketball – unless they were being used metaphorically.

  27. Dan T. said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

    The articles also have some hyphens in places where they're not found at present, like "to-day" and "New-York".

  28. AJD said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

    The one major North American professional sports team that is still referred to according to the "Chicagos vs. the New Yorks" pattern is the baseball team from Philly.

  29. Jonathon Owen said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    I agree with Jonathan Mayhew that the comma is what is jarring. For a similar reason, The Chicago Manual of Style recommends avoiding possessives when using commas around "Jr." (6.47). "Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, famous speech . . ." and "Flint, Michigan's, unemployment rate . . ." look downright bizarre.

  30. AJD said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

    Obviously the correct usage ought to be:

    "Flint, Michigan,'s unemployment rate"

  31. richard said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 4:07 pm

    In the context of the original post, that should be "Flint, Michigans', unemployment rates…."

    Or is that "Flint, Michigans's, unemployment rates…."?

  32. Karl Weber said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 8:20 pm

    This story sheds light on one of Casey Stengel's famous sayings. As manager of the hapless Mets in the early 60s, he was coaching Ken McKenzie, a young pitcher who had played for Yale, about how to pitch to the San Francisco Giants. "Pretend they're the Harvards," he said. Now I see that this was not a whimsical Stengel coinage but rather a usage he may have remembered from his childhood (Casey was born in 1890).

  33. David Morris said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

    Until I followed the link, I had *totally* misunderstood the meaning of the headline. I had thought that there really were two cities/towns/villages/locales in Michigan named 'Flint' – the famous-enough-that-I've-heard-and-read-about-it-in-Australia one and some other one that people in general or I in particular had never heard or read about.

  34. Mark Dunan said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 4:13 am

    What year do those newspapers come from? "New-York" with a dash makes it look like it's pre-1890, but I don't think there was a season in that era in which it would have been a surprise that Chicago would shut New York out.

  35. Faldone said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 9:38 am

    It wouldn't have been that much of a surprise in the days when Frank Chance was player/manager of the Cubs, either, although one of those years, 1908, the Cubs and the Giants were in a hard fought battle for the National League pennant, decided for the Cubs only by Johnny Evers's nerd-like studying of the rules.

  36. Akito said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 10:56 am

    "I feel that I pronounce this as two phrases."

    Despite its grammar, I have always given "Portland, Oregon(,)" the same prosody as "beautiful Oregon", i.e., ADJ + N. (So, it's an NP rather than a compound noun, which would have a different prosody.) This seems to better accord with the possessive form as in "Portland, Oregon(,)'s population growth". Then I am not a native speaker.

  37. Akito said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 10:57 am

    But then …

  38. Adam Roberts said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

    @SamC : "@Adam Roberts
    Um… "humans being" doesn't make any sense, since "being" is the noun and "human" the adjective (a being who is human). So not only is it not what we use, but it wouldn't make any sense grammatically to do it."

    I don't want to needle (and obviously nobody in their right minds — this was my positon, during the original argument — would say 'humans being' as the plural) … but I wonder if this is right? Is mean: in the construction human being is 'being' a noun, and 'human' an adjective? Is that were so, I'd have thought 'canine being', or 'bovine being' would have as much currency.

  39. Brett said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 8:00 pm

    @Adam Roberts: I have always parsed "human being" with "being" as the noun and "human" being attributive. For a moment, your question puzzled me, but then the answer dawned on me. "Being" as a noun in the relevant sense does not mean "living thing" or "animal." Calling something a "being" seems to carry a strong implication of consciousness of some type. We do not usually think of Earth animals as possessing this capacity. "Being" as a noun refers to something that "bes in the world," to (probably mis-) use some terminology I learned studying Husserlian phenomenology. A being must possess some capacity for self-reflection and subjective experience.

    After thinking this through, it was obvious that we know of no real-world beings other than humans. On the other hand, such entities are plentiful in science fiction, and the genre is indeed full of aliens described as "energy beings," "sound beings," and more conventional compounds. (I remember at least one short story with canine beings, although they weren't called that. Humans were ultimately only able to interact with the intelligent canids by having werewolf mediators.) Moreover, thinking about aliens just reinforced my earlier conclusions about the precise meaning of "being." If we found conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial microbes, I don't think they could be called "alien beings"—"alien life forms," sure; but not "beings."

  40. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 11:33 pm

    The classic Anglo-American definition of murder, going back through Blackstone to Coke (+1634) is "when a person of sound mind and discretion, unlawfully killeth any reasonable creature in being, and under the king's peace, with malice aforethought either express or implied." The NP "reasonable creature in being" is usually glossed "human being" (and started being replaced by less mysterious/archaic/poetical wording in some jurisdictions' murder statutes as early as the first half of the 19th century) although it seems that "being" is playing a different role morphosyntactically speaking in "creature in being" than in "human being."

  41. Mark Dunan said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 12:14 am

    @Faldone, indeed, September 23, 1908, is a date known to all Cubs fans. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend the book "The Unforgettable Season", a collection of New York newspaper stories from that pennant race, told from the Giants' perspective. It's from reading that book that I made my assumption that the New York papers had stopped putting a dash in the name of the city by then, but it's possible that the editors cleaned the spelling up when writing the book.

    Can be had for just a penny (plus shipping) on Amazon:

  42. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 11:01 am

    I should note that google confirms my intuition that the plural of "reasonable creature in being" is uncontroversially "reasonable creatures in being," with the only four hits for "reasonable creature in beings" being surreal spam sites of apparent Japanese or Chinese origin.

  43. Rod Johnson said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    I think the possessive 's in "the guy it's named after's" and "King of Spain's"is clearly a phrase-level clitic. What's interesting about the plural analysis is that either the plural s is behaving like a clitic, or the phrase lexicalized and the plural s is behaving like an affix. Which is it?

  44. Faldone said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 11:59 am

    I might add that even someone who would use brothers-in-law as the plural of brother-in-law would be very likely to stumble badly over brother's-in-law as the possessive.

  45. AJD said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 12:35 am

    That's because the plural -s is a suffix that attaches to the end of a noun, while the possessive -'s is an enclitic that attaches to the end of a phrase.

  46. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

    Rodger C.: "To me 'A Tale of Two Flints,' without context, would be a story about two pieces of silica."

    Especially in Slate.

  47. Faldone said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

    That's because the plural -s is a suffix that attaches to the end of a noun, while the possessive -'s is an enclitic that attaches to the end of a phrase.

    The plural -s is a suffix that sometimes attaches to the end of a noun. It's not uncommon to hear brother-in-laws.

  48. Rod Johnson said,

    September 27, 2013 @ 7:20 am

    Faldone, that would be the "the phrase is lexicalized and the plural s is behaving like an affix" case, as I said.

  49. mollymooly said,

    September 27, 2013 @ 5:04 pm

    There was some discussion on Wikipedia's tennis pages about whether the plural of "runner-up" is "runners-up" or "runner-ups" (with or without hyphen). Someone suggested it depended on whether it was singles or doubles.

  50. Ed said,

    November 24, 2013 @ 10:06 am

    i am well behind on my LL reading, but a related tidbit. the radio announcer for University of Michigan hockey _reliably_ calls the team from Western Michigan University "the Westerns", using their nickname "the Broncos" only a couple times per game. he doesn't do this for any other team.

    still, the headline writer here should have probably just stuck with "Flints" and explained that they were talking about the Michigan city in sentence 1 of the article.

RSS feed for comments on this post