Category Archives: Ventriloquism

“Drugs party”

In his review of the English nature writer Robert MacFarlane’s book Underland, Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times:

There’s the prickling sense, reading Macfarlane like [Geoff] Dyer, that a library door or a manhole cover or a bosky path might lead you not just to the end of a chapter but to a drugs party or a rave.

The sentence has led me to add a new category to the blog: “Ventriloquism.” By that I mean cases where an American writer is writing about British people or topics, and consciously or not adopts British lingo. One example in the Garner sentence is “bosky,” which Google Ngram Viewer suggests has consistently been used roughly 50 percent more in Britain than the U.S. (The word, which means “wooded,” is now pretty rarely used on either side of the Atlantic, and when it is generally precedes “glen” or “dell.”)

But I feel “bosky” is a one-off and will devote my attention to Garner’s choice of the word “drugs” instead of “drug” to describe a party in which presumably taking drugs is the dominant feature. It’s a case of pluralizing an attributive nouns, and I’ve written about it before, in the cases of “drinks menu” (instead of “drink”) and and “covers band” (instead of “cover”). Other examples include “books editor” (for the person in charge of book coverage at a newspaper or magazine) and “jobs report” (for studies and statistics about employment trends). In the post on “covers band,” I summarized some of the surprising amount of research done on the topic. For example:

In a 2002 paper, the linguist Elisa Sneed refines the work of Maria Alegre and Peter Gordon in determining the circumstances in which plural attributives tend to be used. There seem to be two important factors. The first is “abstractness.” Sneed writes: “Something not easily imagable, such as a process (admissions), an action (assists), a thing (benefits), or something that is otherwise complex (dissertations) is abstract; something easily imagable and simple conceptually, such as pencils or flowers, is concrete” (italics added).

So dissertations index sounds okay; *flowers pot does not.

The second factor is heterogeneity in the head (final) noun of the phrase. Sneed gives the example of analyst as a head noun that promotes “diversity among the entities denoted by the internal noun” and pile as one that highlights homogeneity. So we might say weapons analyst but weapon pile, as well as cookie jar and sock drawer….

Three other wrinkles. First, irregular plurals tend to be more acceptable than regular plurals as attributives. We might say mice droppings but never *rats droppings. Second, as noted by David Crystal, the plural is often used in cases when meaning might otherwise be ambiguous or misleading. Thus, in baseball, a batter who doesn’t have enough power to produce doubles, triples, or home runs is a singles hitter. To call him a single hitter might mean that he’s just one hitter, or that he’s unmarried. Finally, the plural is used in cases when a possessive apostrophe is understood, such as farmers market.

But here’s the funny thing. It seems self-evident to me that plural attributives are a strongly British phenomenon … but I’ve never seen it referred to as such in any scholarship or commentary, and I even got pushback when I asserted this in previous posts. So I’ll try to support my contention, a little at a time. In the “covers band,” I included an Ngram View chart showing British preference for the plural and American for the singular. (And by the way, Google being an American company, it’s “Ngram” not “Ngrams.”)

As for “drugs party” vs “drug party” here’s the Ngram Viewer chart for use in American books, 1990-2000:

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And here’s the one for British use:

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2000 is the most recent year for reliable Ngram Viewer data, but the News on the Web (NOW) Corpus, which tracks postings from 2010 to the present, shows “drugs party” being used exclusively in Britain and Commonwealth countries (though admittedly not very often).

Screen Shot 2019-06-11 at 10.35.37 AM

So can I get an “amen” that Dwight Garner’s “drugs party” was a NOOB?

Next up: “jobs report.”