All Your Plural Are Useless

There is an ongoing debate about plurals in the database community – like in this StackOverflow question:  Table Naming Dilemma – Singular vs Plural And Ruby on Rails users struggle with and sometimes override the obligatory pluralization convention.

But I’m here to tell you that everything good said about plurals is wrong. This is an aside, but it may feed into the debate.Plurals Are UselessPlurals never, in any realistic sentence, provide any additional information.

If you were to eliminate plurals from all of your sentences, no information would be lost – although the sentence may sound daft. But it would only sound daft through lack of familiarity – not because of any meaning lost.

Take this example:

I own 3 cat. I only have 5 dollar.

Exactly what information does the s add when we fix it?

I own 3 cats. I only have 5 dollars.

Nothing. You already know there’s more than one cat, because the number is specified. The plural is redundant.

I own many cats. I saw lots of elephants.

As long as there is a word describing the plurality already, such as many, lots – you don’t need an s to knock you over the head with it. We already know there’s more-than-one (or not) before we read the s.

Those women were talking about you.

Those girl were talking about you.

The second sounds awkward, but if it were spoken by a non-native speaker, it would be easy to understand. Why is that?

Notice I didn’t use the word woman here (for the singular of women). This would make it so awkward as to be almost incomprehensible. But that is because plurals are not only useless, but also hideously inconsistent. If it were just a matter of adding s, they would just be harmlessly useless.

The only sentence I can think of that comes close to having a plural add information is this:

I went to the park today and saw squirrels.

Squirraloo

But that sentence is not realistic.

Realistically, it would quantify how many squirrels were seen. Some; heaps; a few; 3 big ones. And as soon as that happens, the s in squirrels immediately becomes…

Did you ever wonder why other languages, such as Japanese, don’t use plurals?

Plurals
Are
Useless

In the squirrel example, it is also obvious through context, that plurality is implied or trivial enough to be irrelevant. Take the s away, and you’ve not lost any meaning.

To see some of the many exceptions for plurals: Fun With Plurals

Some plurals are the same as the singular (eg fish, moose). And some plurals have no singular (eg scissors, cattle). These plurals cannot possibly provide any information – or by confusing the plural, they even detract from any attempt to create meaning. Plurals are a language oddity.

If you know of a useful sentence where the plural adds information that wouldn’t otherwise be known. Let’s have it.

What about the developer singular vs plural debate?

ActiveRecord use plurality to make your code read like an English sentence. Maybe the number of exceptions is low enough to get away with this. But since many plural exceptions are animals (geese, cattle, fish, moose, deer, sheep) – my plans for a web app game featuring a moose that can fish, and 3 sheep that trade with local deer – is looking like a lot of work.

Some plurals are also up for debate and this Ruby on Rails bug report on the plural of penis has been closed wontfix. It’s labelled as an enhancement, probably just to make it a penis enhancement, with a comment: “You guys should probably investigate a plugin to handle this

All this suggests to me that in the programming world of precision, an unreliable language-oddity like English plurals should not be relied on to convey any meaning – if possible.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by DavidPhillipOster on 2010/10/26 at 1:15 PM

    I couldn’t fail to agree with you more. I generally use plurals for my containers, so I can write loops like:

    for (Cat *cat in cats) {
    DoSomethingWith(cat);
    }

    Reply

    • Yes, that’s a different kind of meaning. I didn’t really take on variable names in code.

      But let’s have a look at this. The meaning you’re getting is altogether different. But you raise a good point.

      By using a plural in code for a list, the meaning is that it’s a list or enumerable – that is, capable of holding many. You don’t actually know whether there is 0 or 1 or more items in that list. But I admit, that doesn’t really matter in the context of this code. My point is that you’re getting a different type of abstract information by using a plural here. A fairly useful one.

      I think it’s fair to say that while plurals are gramatically useless, you’ve found a round-about way of employing them to mean something slightly different. That your list of cats may be empty, and actually have no cats, can probably only mean something to a programmer.

      Reply

  2. “But that sentence is not realistic. Realistically, it would quantify how many squirrels were seen.”

    Actually, I thought about the example in a different way: how many parks did the speaker visit today? I think that does actually change the meaning, thus taking away the plural on “parks” takes away information, though it may not introduce any ambiguity (a more interesting possibility, linguistically, when talking about the necessity of a construct). But let’s ignore, for a moment, information and ambiguity in lingual constructs.

    Your claim that plurals are useless assumes that “not sounding daft” carries no value. I submit that there is value in a statement flowing naturally. As you’re thinking through all the constructs in your system – and, if you’re like most human beings, you think in spoken language – you think about what data you’re dealing with and how it flows in the system. As you’re working on your system with others, you explain – in spoken language, no less – how things work and how everything is connected. A sentence that sounds daft jars your comprehension, slows you down, and forces you to think harder than you need to. Consider also an outsider having to comprehend an already-built system. Someone else’s code is hard enough to understand as it is – just look at the cost of the maintenance cycle compared to the development cycle – making the code more natural to read helps comprehension, and that’s more valuable that whatever bytes and keystrokes you may be saving by eschewing natural language.

    Reply

    • “Your claim that plurals are useless assumes that “not sounding daft” carries no value”

      I’m not coming at this problem from the position of: “can we start removing plurals from English right now”
      From this point of view you would be right – statements wouldn’t flow properly and we would lose comprehension. In that sense, the plural indeed carries value.

      I’m coming at this problem from a position like: “if we could rewrite a language from scratch, would we use plurals?”

      Since they add nothing that isn’t already obvious in ordinary grammar, I think the answer to that is clearly “no”.

      I don’t think we can just stop using plurals, because they are embedded in our grammar and we are therefore stuck with them.

      But I think we should be mindful of how little genuine information they provide and carefully consider their use when producing information in a programming/IT domain where consistency, precision and avoiding redundancy is generally more important.

      Reply

      • I agree that we need to be judicious with their use. In the case of rails, it’s all fine and cute to pluralize your tables as long as you’re usin the rails framework with that db. It becomes a liability once you use the db ouside of a rails environment, which is the only time you see the pluralized table names.

        However, I don’t yet agree with you on your lingual claims:

        “I accidentally ate poisonous mushroom.”

        Is pluralization useless here? I submit that it may be the difference between life and death and carry valuable information for a medical pofessional.

      • “I accidentally ate poisonous mushroom.”

        That’s a case of the unrealistic sentence.

        If you admit that the person saying this sentence would be thoughtful enough to add an s, then he’s going to be thoughtful enough to think of a number like “2”.

        I submit that no one would walk into a doctor’s office and answer “what happened?” with “I ate poisonous mushrooms.”
        Even so, if the doctor is going to deal with this situation, what’s the first thing he’s going to ask in order to get the valuable information he needs?

        How many?

        And the answer to that question brings us back to the realistic version of your sentence:

        “I ate [2/3/a few/a handful of] poisonous mushrooms.”

        And from that sentence, the plural s is useless.

  3. Posted by AdamV on 2011/01/29 at 12:32 AM

    This post made me crack up and really think about it. Excellent job!!

    I think there is one word where pluralization is necessary, tits. Can I get an Amen?!

    Reply

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