Dave's Writing Guide

Typos, style-o's, capitalization-o's, and everything-else-and-in-between-o's.

Category: Usage

An-aphylactic Shock

Problem(s)

An euphoric end to a bittersweet Olympics (AP)

Solution(s)

A euphoric end to a bittersweet Olympics (AP)

Explanation

No, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

Ack! You have got to be kidding me! This is an actual headline (hence the lack of punctuation) from the Associated Press—and to prove it, here’s a screenshot:

An terribly horrible headline.

Ahem. So. Let us start by reviewing the appropriate way to use the English indefinite article—again.

In English, words that begin with a consonant sound are preceded by the “a” variant of the indefinite article. Words that begin with a vowel sound, on the other hand, are preceded by “an”. It’s that simple.

Turning our attention to this problem sentence, the word “euphoric” begins with a vowel letter, but does not begin with a vowel sound. The distinction is crucial. As such, it should be “a euphoric”, just as one would say “a yellow banana” and not “an yellow banana”.

But this is no simple typo. No indeed: I know the secret behind this error.

Returning to a previous error, stuffshirts and blowhards think it sounds hoity-toity to say “an historic” instead of “a historic”. It’s wrong, of course (just as wrong as it would be to say “an hoity-toity idiot”), but they think it’s “proper”, and so they go about making asses of themselves by saying “an historic event”.

Now let’s look at our problem sentence. The context is the conclusion of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. In summing it up, one simply had to pay tribute to the memory of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili who died tragically in a freak accident during a training run literally hours before the opening ceremonies. As such, the article needed a bit of solemnity, even in discussing the national high experienced by Canada after the Canadians’ victory over Team USA for the gold medal in hockey.

When dealing with solemn or serious matters, all writers have a tendency to “write up”—that is, to try to use more formal language than they would ordinarily. Knowing that writing something like “an historic” has a kind of solemn and prestigious air, this writer (David Crary, in case you’re curious), no doubt, looked at the similarity between the words “historic” and “euphoric” (both trisyllabic, both end in “-oric”…) and thought, “Gee, you know what? If it’s formal to say ‘an historic’, I’ll bet it’s formal to say ‘an euphoric’, too!”

And that’s how we got the headline quoted above.

If David Crary ever happens to read this, I offer this advice: Trust your gut. Your first reaction (hopefully to write “a euphoric”) is often the correct reaction when it comes to usage. Don’t let that internal editor confuse and bamboozle you. Chances are he’s had one too many and is up to no good.

(And no, in case you were wondering, I will not consider seriously the possibility that we’re intended to pronounce “euphoric” as the Greeks do. “Euphoric” is now an English word, and we’re not giving it back!)

Hopefully

Problem(s)

Hopefully I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.

Solution(s)

I hope that I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.

It is my hope that I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.

I live hopefully knowing that it may come to pass that I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.

Explanation

What’s wrong with the problem sentence above? Let’s see what the internet has to say:

Everyone uses “hopefully” as a shortcut for “I hope.” It is not. Yes, the dictionary allows it, but that’s just bending to popular usage. In my book, there is only one correct use for “hopefully.” It’s a synonym for “prayerfully”—as in, “She looked up hopefully and said, ‘Dear Lord, please make it rain soon, or we’ll have no harvest.'” Do you want to say “I hope”? Then say “I hope.”

This quote comes from an essay by Jesse Kornbluth, founder of HeadButler.com. Jesse is a journalist, a writer, a contributor to several magazines (their titles don’t matter—they’re magazines), and the holder of a BA in English from Harvard. He is not, however, a linguist.

The funny thing about non-linguists is that they fall into two categories: regular folk, and grammarians. Both camps know next to nothing about language that instinct hasn’t taught them, but what distinguishes grammarians is that they insist (stridently? Sure, why not: stridently) that they know more about language than both regular folk and linguists.

The case of “hopefully” is a fine example. If you break it down (ooh, morphemically! Ha. Take that, Marantz!), what you get is “hope”, a verb, which means what it means (to believe, falsely, that one’s thoughts and silent protestations are able to effect some sort of change in the world [note that it need not be in the future, e.g. “I hope he got home okay.” That subtle distinction—in this case, the difference between the deontic and epistemic use of “hope”—is something the grammarian usually fails to pick up on (or have a name for, for that matter)]), followed by the suffix “-ful” (no longer spelled “-full”, even though its etymology is rather transparent), which indicates (metaphorically, mind you) that the modified noun is “full of” whatever is specified, the combination of which gives us the adjective “hopeful”: roughly, “to be full of hope”. To this is then added the handy “-ly” suffix (cognate to German “-lich”, which is cognate to English “like”, etc.) which makes an adverb out of the whole monstrosity, leaving us with a meaning something like “to act/behave in a manner that is characterized by being full of hope”, or perhaps something even more prolix that need not be written down.

The problem, then, is that as it is written in the problem sentence above, the word “hopefully” is devoid of content. Who’s doing what hopefully? Is it “I”, the subject? If it were, the literal meaning would be “Tomorrow, I will be able to eat ice cream, and I will be able to do so in a hopeful manner.” Given that meaning, it’s a bit odd that the adverb is preposed, but stranger things exist in print.

Unfortunately, there’s one little problem: That’s not what the sentence means. Instead, “hopefully” functions as an optative marker. In plain English (man, there’s an expression, if I’ve ever heard one!), what this means is that the word “hopefully” is there solely to indicate to the reader or listener that the content of the sentence is something that has not happened yet, but which the speaker wishes to happen. Some languages (Ancient Greek among them) encode this grammatically. English, though, at some point in time decided to borrow the word “hopefully” to fulfill the purpose, and it’s done a fine job ever since.

“N-now, just wait a minute, there!” cries Jesse K. Prescriptivist. “That’s not what the word means! You can’t do that!”

Jesse K., I gots two words for you: BOOOO HOOOO! Or, to put that in 1337: qq moar n00b.

Let’s examine the “logic” of the prescriptivist’s argument. “Everyone says x to mean y, but they ought not, because it means x.” Everyone, you say—even you? (I bet you do.) If that’s the case, by what authority can you claim that x means x and not y? The response is simple enough: “It used to mean x, and we have documented proof that it did.”

Okie doke. Let’s go with that. For fun, let’s take a look at another function adverb: “already.” Its etymology is pretty darn clear: it’s a combination of the words “all” and “ready”. In fact, you can see it acting as it ought in a sentence like, “Are you all ready?” (In this sentence, the subject is addressing multiple people.) Somehow or other, though, the two words got jammed together—respelled, too (they complain about “alright”, but not about “already”. Why, I wonder…?)—and the meaning was “corrupted”, so that now it’s used as a kind of emphatic completive marker (if you say “I ate”, surely it means that the action was completed some time in the past, but it simply doesn’t carry the force of “I ate already”).

I don’t see any grammarians claiming that “already” is an abomination any longer. Why? Presumably because its innovation predated their existence. Is that, then, the prerequisite for acceptance? Clearly the history of “they” being used as a singular third person pronoun contradicts this, but we’ll stick with it for now.

Logically, then, there’s but one thing to do: Wait for everyone who’s bothered by the optative usage of “hopefully” to die, and then we’ll have no more bother. If you’re a student, use “hopefully” to your heart’s content. If your teacher gives you trouble, send them here. If they still give you trouble, find a new class. Certain things you simply do not need.

But let’s back up a moment. Just how on Earth did “hopefully” come to be used as an optative marker, anyway?

What the grammarian probably did not notice in reading this write-up is that I’ve committed the exact same “error” with words other than “hopefully” several times already. Do a search for the word “unfortunately”, for example. Just what’s up with that? “Fortune” is chance; “fortunate” is an adjective used with a noun that has benefited by chance; “unfortunate” is the opposite (someone who’s been afflicted by bad luck, let’s say); “unfortunately”, then, is someone who has acted in a manner that can be characterized as unfortunate. If you take a look at that sentence, whose action is being characterized as unfortunate? No one’s? Then why is that sentence fine and a sentence beginning with “hopefully” wrong?

And it doesn’t end there. Consider: “Sadly, there is no more ice cream to be had.”

Or, “Happily, there’s an ice cream parlor just around the corner.”

Or, “Malheureusement, je ne sais pas le mot française pour ‘ice cream’.”

What’s going on here? Even the French betray “common sense”?!

Of course, that’s not what’s happening. What is happening is a process common to human languages everywhere. Specifically, an adverb’s meaning is being extended metaphorically to convey the attitude of the speaker. You might think of each adverb as modifying the phrase “I say”, in which case “hopefully” fits right in (think about it: “I say hopefully that I’ll be able to eat ice cream tomorrow”). Rarely does a speaker explicitly inform the hearer that they are in the process of speaking, though, so what the adverb modifies is an idea.

To put it bluntly, not only does complaining about the “misuse” of “hopefully” betray a general lack of understanding as to the nature of language, it is, to use the most insulting term available to an academic, misguided. Hopefully the grammarians of the world will come to understand this, but I’m not holding my breath.

If the use of “hopefully” as an optative marker saddens you, though, I sympathize. After all, there are tons of English speakers running around right now pronouncing “important” as if it were spelled “impordant” (it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me). But what is one to do? Innovations occur everyday in every language. Some innovations are quashed early on; some are picked up and become features of the language. One can try to predict what will catch on, or even serve as a guide, but ultimately, it’s out of our hands. If you’re feeling down, though, I recommend Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right. In Bierce, not only will you find a true prescriptivist (and a brilliant writer), but you’ll find someone who will criticize your own English (yes, even modern day “grammarians’”)! Did you know that “obnoxious” doesn’t mean “annoying”? Or that one ought not say “as for me” but “as to me”? No? Then go read Write It Right right away! You’ll either be horrified at how your own English has been corrupted, or you’ll come away with a better sense of just how language evolution works.

P.S.: Speaking of errors, Kornbluth, I was reading your article here, and was shocked to learn that J. D. Salinger had apparently written a short story I’d never read which shared a title with his 1961 novel Franny and Zooey! I was about to turn to Google to find out more, when I read on and saw that I was mistaken, and that, instead, you simply failed to correctly punctuate the title. Imagine my dismay! In case you hadn’t learned this one yet, the titles of shorter works (like short stories) are enclosed in quotation marks; the titles of longer works (like Salinger’s novel) are underlined (though thanks to the lazy newspaper industry, italics are also acceptable). Whoa, hey, did you hear that? That was the sound of you getting OWNED. That one was free. The rest will cost you.

She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain

Problem(s)

Ice cream has become to be something more than just a dessert to me.

Solution(s)

Ice cream has come to be something more than just a dessert to me.

Ice cream has become something more than just a dessert to me.

Explanation

You only get one “be”, so use it wisely!

(Note that “become” and “come to be” are not always interchangeable. Consider: “He became a teacher” ≠ “He came to be a teacher.” Oh, and how about “You’re becoming a nuisance” vs. “You’re coming to be a nuisance”?)

Powerful Stench?

Problem(s)

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to wreck havoc on the city.

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to reek havoc on the city.

Solution(s)

The permanent closure of my local ice cream parlor caused me to wreak havoc on the city.

Explanation

One letter can make a world of difference. Take our first problem sentence above. If we want to be technical, what that sentence actually conveys is something like the following: In my town, there was a local ice cream parlor that was closed. Its closure made me so upset, that I located havoc—the entity, here apparently anthropomorphized—and I beat the living tar out of it. Furthermore, I did this while standing on top of the city. (Oh, though if we wanted to change the text style and capitalization, what I could be wrecking is the new hit TV show Havoc on the City!)

If we then take a look at problem sentence number two, we’re in for even more fun. In this scenario, the ice cream parlor’s closure made me so upset that I decided to utilize my mighty stink glands to stink up havoc (again, the allegorical entity), and I did so while standing on top of the city. (I should note, though, that even this interpretation is problematic, as it would force us to accept a new variant of “reek”: a transitive verb meaning “to cause to reek”.)

The specific errors here differ, but the source is the same. Both “wreck” and “reek” are common words. “Wreak”, on the other hand, is far, far from common. In fact, I’m pretty sure the word “wreak” only occurs in the phrase “wreak havoc” (this expression, by the way, is a fun one since “havoc” is pretty rare itself, unless you’re a fan of the X-Men [though even there, his name is properly spelled “Havok”]). As a result, if you’ve heard it for the first time, or have never seen it in print, it seems reasonable to infer that the word “wreak” is either actually “reek”, used in some odd way you haven’t encountered previously, or that you misheard, and the word is actually “wreck”.

This latter interpretation is ingenious, in my opinion, because it plays on the context in which the word “wreak” is used. If a speaker uses the phrase “wreak havoc”, the context is probably negative (defined in the simplest way, to “wreak havoc” is to do something bad). Similarly, the verb “wreck”, defined simply, is to do something bad to something else. Since the semantic domain of both words is the same, and since the phonological forms are similar, it’s perfectly logical (or, perhaps, analogical) to assume that “wreak havoc” is actually “wreck havoc”, and that the meaning of “wreck” has been extended metaphorically to cover a situation that focuses on the act of wrecking something. The syntax of the verb, of course, has to be modified to allow for a direct object that itself isn’t “wrecked” (unless “wreak havoc” is interpreted as a phrase similar to “kick the bucket”), but given that words are used in such bizarre ways in English already, no English speaker can be blamed for making such an assumption.

Back to real world English, the status of this error, though, is that it is an error, and it’s not accepted even in non-standard writing. It will happen from time to time, of course, but just as we can’t get away with writing “for all intensive purposes”, so are we unable to get away with writing “wreck havoc”. As with other expressions, this is simply one to memorize, just as one must memorize that the word for “duck” is “duck” and not “cordoofle”.

Mos Defiantly

Problem(s)

I defiantly think we should go get ourselves some ice cream.

Solution(s)

I definitely think we should go get ourselves some ice cream.

Explanation

I see this one again and again, and I often wonder why. Well, no, that’s not quite true. Really what I wonder is what the world would be like if the writer actually intended to use “defiantly”. Take our problem sentence. In the terrible world that sentence presupposes, not only is it apparently a crime to go get ice cream, but it’s considered inappropriate—treasonous, if you will—to even opine that anyone should go get ice cream. Thus, in suggesting that the group get ice cream, the speaker is engaging in an act of defiance.

I suspect that what might be happening here is writers are misspelling “definitely” as “definately”, or perhaps “definatly”, and the word processing program they’re using, trying to make sense of what’s been typed, suggests “defiantly”. Without thinking, the writer approves the change (or perhaps the program sneakily changes it for them), and thus “defiantly” defiantly strong-arms its way into whatever’s being written.

This is one of the problems with smart technology. The writer must be smart enough to figure out how the program is going to use its smarts in a silly way, and then must take measures to prevent its smarts getting in the way of readability. For even though anyone reading the problem sentence above will likely figure out what the writer intended, the comical imagery the error conjures up in the mind of the reader is something that one will likely want to avoid in academic and formal contexts.

A Rite of Passage

Problem(s)

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my driver license?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my drivers license?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my drivers’ license?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my driver licence?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my drivers licence?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my drivers’ licence?

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my driver’s’ liscensce’?

Solution(s)

Why doesn’t it list my favorite flavor of ice cream on my driver’s license?

Explanation

Many have trouble even saying this one, let alone writing it. So, how does it work? First, unless, you’re British, it’s “license”: one c, one s—in that order. Don’t like it? Move to Britain. Then you can spell it licence all you want (and defence, etc.). Alternatively, you can start speaking with a British accent, and spelling “color” colour, calling the subway the tube, and eating fish and chips, bangers and mash and shepherd’s pie. Be wary of talking to anyone who might actually be from Britain, though, because they’ll probably find you out and expose you. If you find yourself in a situation that would force you to either reveal your identity or speak phony British English to a Brit, I strongly recommend you rely on your ninja school training to escape. What’s that? You didn’t go to ninja school?! Well, then. I guess you’d better start spelling it “license” straight away, hadn’t you?

Of course, the major problem people have is usually with the first part: the driver. If you take a step back and think of this as a phrase rather than a compound, I think you’ll see why the solution sentence above is correct:

Heather is a driver.

All drivers need licenses.

Therefore, Heather needs a driver’s license.

That is, a license needed by a driver. Ta da!

If you’re confused, though, don’t feel bad, by any means. If Wikipedia can be trusted (and I think we all know the answer to that), apparently the official term used in the United States is (drumroll please!): “driver license.” Ha! What a hoot! The “official” term is something that almost none of us ever say. Oh well. That’s the government for you.

If you’re ever in a bind, remember: a license is something that must be owned or obtained by a driver in order for them to drive. As for whether it should be “driver’s” or “drivers'”, well, if many drivers need licenses, then it stands to reason that a single driver needs a license, right?

This brings up the issue of pluralization. I’ve often seen plurals such as “drivers’ licenses”, or “drivers licenses”, “driver’s license’s”, “driver license’s”, “drivers’ licenses’”, and any combination of the preceding. This one shouldn’t cause trouble as long as you remember what the noun is: license! The whole “driver’s” part is just extra information, and doesn’t need to change.

I can certainly understand why one would resort to one of these odd pluralization strategies (it’s the influence of that naughty ‘s at the end of “driver’s”! It’s always up to no good!), but if you’re in a spot, remember: You’re bigger than the English language. You own it. You create it on a daily basis! It does what you say, not the other way around! You shouldn’t be afraid of the English language: It should be afraid of you! So if it tries to confuse you with its tricksy apostrophes, hyphens and esses, you just grab it by the shoulders, and say, “Hey, buddy! You’re my language!” You show it who’s boss! Don’t you take no guff from no language! It has to answer to us, not the other way around!

I Who Is…?

Problem(s)

But to me, who know what it really is, its transformation makes no matter, for I will have it repaired at the first village where I can find a smith in such a way that it will not be surpassed or even equaled by the one that the god of smiths himself made and forged for the god of battles.

Solution(s)

But to me, who knows what it really is, its transformation makes no matter, for I will have it repaired at the first village where I can find a smith in such a way that it will not be surpassed or even equaled by the one that the god of smiths himself made and forged for the god of battles.

Explanation

The astute reader of the above will note that the problem sentence comes from Don Quixote by Cervantes (Don Quixote here is talking about a brass barber’s basin he fancies to be a helmet). That sentence was written (i.e. translated) by Walter Starkie, the famed Irish scholar. Notice anything odd about it? If you do, you’re not alone; if you don’t, you’re not alone.

English, like any number of old, abandoned bicycles rusting on the side of the road, is broken, and the problem and solution sentences above are prime examples of its sorry state. (Don’t believe me? Here’s further evidence.) When we use “who”, generally there is no problem, because we’re usually talking about someone else, e.g., “The guy who’s on the phone dropped his hat in that volcano.” When the target of relativization (in this case, “the guy”) is a third party (pretty much any noun or a pronoun like “he”, “she”, “it”, or even “they”), the verb that follows “who” is conjugated in the third person, and we don’t give it another thought. When, for whatever odd reason, though, you want to relativize “I”, the mighty capitalized pronoun, you immediately run into a dilemma. Consider:

  • “I eat ice cream.” (Good!)
  • “I eats ice cream.” (Bad!)
  • “I who eat ice cream.” (Good?)
  • “I who eats ice cream.” (Probably bad?)
  • “Give the ice cream to me, who eat ice cream.” (Good?!)
  • “Give the ice cream to me, who eats ice cream.” (Suddenly not so bad anymore?!)
  • “Who eats ice cream?” “I do.” (Good!)
  • “Who eat ice cream?” “I do.” (Bad!)

It gets a bit confusing. Is “who” a third person pronoun? How could it possibly be a first person pronoun? Does “I” pass some of its first-person-ness onto the “who” by means of some nightmarish Chomskyan mechanism? The amusing thing is it doesn’t matter, because whatever explanation one comes up with, the data is bound to be refuted by the next passerby. And why? Because English is broken!

So, what to do? If you’re writing an essay for, I don’t know, school, I’d say just never, ever relativize “I” or “me”. I bet you can get through every essay you’ll ever write for school without having to do it. If you have to, try to do it in the past tense where English forgets that verbs can agree in person and/or number (the sole exception being that dirty verb “was”, which, truth be told, probably isn’t a true conjugation of the verb “to be” at all, if you go back far enough). If you absolutely have to, ask your professor and/or teacher: make them fix English.

American Idyll

Problem(s)

Imagine it: an ice cream parlor in every home. Idyllic? Perhaps. Worthwhile? Without question.

Solution(s)

Imagine it: an ice cream parlor in every home. Idealistic? Perhaps. Worthwhile? Without question.

Explanation

Yours truly has been guilty of this one in the past (read that aloud: it’s probably still true). We have the word “ideal”, and one is bound to hear the word “idyllic”, and so it’s natural to think (if one doesn’t see the spelling) that the latter is related to the former. Such, however, is not the case.

The word “idyll” refers to a type of poetry (or, originally it did). An idyll is a kind of pastoral poem, talking about peasant folk out in the fields, tall grass, shrubbery, etc. (think William Wordsworth). To describe this type of a poem, one uses the word “idyllic”. The poems are always positive (or at least the ones I’ve read), talking about how the peasants out there in the fields are so much better than cityfolk like us, because they’re closer to the land, it’s peaceful, with a tranquil landscape, etc. (Dang… Two etceteras…) As such, the word “idyllic” was extended to describe a pastoral landscape. So, if you head out to a field of wheat, and the weather’s mild, and there’s a breeze blowing, and there’s no one around, and it’s quiet, and you can hear nothing but nature, it’d be okay to call that scene idyllic. That this was an ideal setting for some is what I think led to problems.

So now we have the sense out there that one definition (or, perhaps, the definition) of “idyllic” is “referring to lofty ideals”, so that someone who gives an inspiring speech can be referred to as idyllic. Thus they relate, erring. In fact, the word “idyllic” is just a specialized term that worked its way out into the world of general discourse simply because it sounds like it could be an adjectival form of “ideal”. Alas, would that it were so!

Since it is not so, I recommend you leave “idyllic” for Wordsworth, no matter how fancy it sounds, and stick with “idealistic”.

Lieutenant Commander Plural

Problem(s)

This data is hard to interpret, Captain.

Solution(s)

These data are hard to interpret, Captain.

This datum is hard to interpret, Captain.

Explanation

In Proper World, “data” is the plural of “datum”. If you live in Proper World, saying, “The data is…” is just as bad as saying, “The dogs is…” While not all of us live in Proper World, enough of us still live there that one can’t help but interact with a Proper Worldian every now and again. As such, it’s probably a good idea to be aware of this rule—especially when writing. If you want to be safe, always treat “data” as a plural noun. If you want to live recklessly, try to command both rules, and see if you can ferret out the Proper Worldians. I warn you, though: they’re hard to identify. They don’t wear badges anymore, or even speak with British accents. A Proper Worldian may pop up anywhere, and at any time—even in your own hometown!

Realistically, the word “data” is so often characterized and thought of as a mass noun, that sooner or later, the word “datum” is going to vanish, and the word will probably end up being treated like a singular mass noun (e.g. “grass”), and not a plural count noun (e.g. “dog”). Even Proper Worldians have to admit that referring to, say, an elicited sentence as a “datum” is awfully stilted and silly. And ask yourself this: Say you have two elicited sentences you wish to refer to. Would you say, “Look at these two data”? Would you?! “How many data do you have, Professor Jones?” “Three, Professor Bones.” Three indeed!

If you want my real prediction, I bet the word is going to split up. You’ll still have to (or at least be able to) say “these data are”, but “datum” may go the way of the dodo, and instead of saying something like “two data”, you’ll probably have to say, “two pieces of data”. It’ll happen, and no one will care that the word came from Latin. Then what? I suppose the world will spin off its axis, and we’ll all fly into the sun. Let the good times roll!

To the Fishes in the Deep Blue Sea

Problem(s)

How many fish eat ice cream?

Solution(s)

How many fishes eat ice cream?

Explanation

Many have asked the question: is it “fishes” or “fish”? Here’s the answer: there is no correct answer. Which is more likely? Google Fight can tell you that: “many fish.” Hands down, in fact. It kills “many fishes”. But does that make “many fishes” wrong? Not necessarily. After all, whatever machine spellchecks for me doesn’t have a problem with “fishes”, and generally spell-checking machines are conservative. Further, we’ve all heard “fishes”, and may have even used “fishes” at one time or another. So even though “fish” is (currently) the most popular plural, why is “fishes” still around? Here’s my guess.

The whole reason we have “fish” as a plural (same with “deer” and “buffalo”) is that we, traditionally, have seen fish as a kind of mass, rather than a collection of individual entities, like “rice” and “seaweed”, as opposed to “dogs”. (Can you imagine saying, “How many dog are there in North America?”) It harkens back to the days of treating fish like vegetation. Think about all the people that are so-called “fish vegetarians”: they won’t eat mammals or birds, because they have character. Fish, on the other hand… I’ve even heard people argue that cows and chickens have souls, but fish and shrimp don’t! The idea is still out there, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, and so we have this mass plural for “fish”.

So why “fishes”? There are several factors to consider. First, it’s common. The easiest plural we have in English is the ol’ “add -(e)s” plural, so it shouldn’t surprise us to find a word that pluralizes that way. Second, we have, to an extent, domesticated fish. They’ll never be like dogs, since we can’t pet them, but there are people (myself included) who have, at one time or another, owned one or more fish. The more interaction we have with fish, the more likely it is that we’ll baulk at treating them as an undifferentiated mass. Finally, even for those that refuse the plural “fishes”, there is an instance where you would use it. Goldfish are a type of fish, as are tuna, albacore, mahimahi, trout, cod, etc. These are different types of fish (or fishes). If you want to refer to a type of fish, you can refer to it as “a fish” (e.g. “What is trout?”, “It is a fish.”). Now let’s say you’re talking about the Pacific Ocean. Using our new “fish” as “type of fish” word, the appropriate way to ask about fish in the Pacific Ocean is, “Which fishes are found in the Pacific Ocean?”, or even, “What types of fishes are found in the Pacific Ocean?”, just as one would ask, “Which grasses grow in Africa?”

Since I brought up “grasses”, there’s one more important fact that keeps “fishes” on the map: a singular fish is an individual entity. What is a grass? It’s made up of blades of grass. With “grass”, there’s further individuation to be done; with fish, this is not the case. As a result, the plural “fishes” will always be valid, and one will always be able to argue for it (provided, of course, that it doesn’t disappear completely), whereas “grass” will always be “grass”.

So, there you have it! If you’re typing up a document whose users are persnickety, your safest bet is “fish” (though it might not always be the one people prefer), but there will always be a place for “fishes”.