Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sugar Teeth

Just hold on. I’ll get to this in a second.


We had an English major problem at work — and believe me, an English major problem is a hell of a lot better than, say, an anatomy problem or structural integrity problem. Writing about the very subject of my previous post, someone mentioned that the Senate candy desk satisfies the cravings of the entire Senate floor, only she chose to do so by referring to the senators’ sweet teeth. Logically, if one candy lover has a sweet tooth, then two must have sweet teeth. Right?

Technically, no.

Sweet tooth belongs to a rarely discussed set of nouns known as exocentric or “headless” compounds. Basically, they’re compound nouns — like blackboard or ice cream or internal combustion engine, in which smaller words function together as if they were one single word — but in this special case, neither involved word actually refers to the thing described. For example, while a blackboard is a board, a flatfoot is not a foot at all. And flatfoot is especially handy because that end word, foot, has an irregular plural that you ignore when it appears in an exocentric compound. Thus, one flatfoot, two flatfoots. It seems unnatural when you think about it, but I actually feel like most people causally speaking would say flatfoots without thinking about it. The example you’re probably most used to hearing, whether you’re a hockey fan or not, is Toronto Maple Leafs. Logically, that should be Maple Leaves, only the team is officially Maple Leafs. Other examples? Still lifes, sabertooths and houndstooths, and no I’m not sure anyone has had to refer to houndstooth in the plural and no, I don’t know why most of my exocentric compound examples involve teeth. But I feel like sweet tooth, which isn’t a tooth at all, totally falls into the same category and that the plural should be sweet tooths.

But here’s the thing: Even though the one dictionary that offers a plural for sweet tooth agrees with me, it would still look wrong to the majority of readers. Rather than be technically right but apparently wrong, we simply re-wrote the sentence. Readability once again conquered correct but awkward grammar.

One more thought on the subject of exocentric compounds, and it relates to the image at the top of the post: Should cloverleaf (referring to the looped highway interchange and not, like, the actual plant parts) be pluralized as cloverleaves or cloverleafs? Is the structure leaf-like enough that it’s not exocentric? Webster says leaf can actually mean “something suggestive of a leaf.” Now I don’t know how to discuss the countless cloverleaf structures that I, as an Angeleno, must wind around every day.

8 comments:

  1. My (mostly facetious) solution is to infix the plurals: sweets tooth, houndsestooth, cloversleaf.

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    1. I mean, it makes about as much sense and pluralizing them in any on grammatically weird manner.

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  2. First: I love this kind of post. I likely would have gone with "sweet teeth" myself, but only because it "sounds" right to me and because I wasn't aware of exocentric compounds until now. Now that I've read this post, though, I understand why it *should* be "sweet tooths" and even prefer that version at the moment.

    Second: Would you be willing to share how the writer ended up re-writing the sentence? I'd like to know how he/she worked her way around the problem.

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    1. I think things like this are problematic simply because the thing you'd expect to be right simply isn't -- and for no good reason, too.

      The way we reworked the sentence simply referenced "candy cravings" rather than "sweet tooths."

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  3. Other Drew10:45 PM

    I had an argument years ago with a friend working at a bakery about how people should go about ordering more than one "death by chocolate." Where do you stand on that one?

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    1. Technically, I guess it would be "deaths by chocolate," but I feel like the meaning shifts a great deal when you're talking about a dessert and not an actual choco-induced death. So I would say "death by chocolates."

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  4. The exocentric compound thing is an attempt to explain something we've noticed about English compounds. It's not intended as a prescriptive rule we are expected to follow. And there are exceptions: Blackfeet, greenlit, computer mice.

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    1. Interesting. I misunderstood. However, it's worth pointing out that at my previous place of employment, the house style was to pluralize Blackfoot and Blackfoot, no "s."

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