Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're joining the s-club…
Q: Hi AWC, I’m having some trouble with some of my “Ss” – can you help?
A: Is it a lisp situation?
Q: No it’s not. But just as a side note, whoever decided to include an “s” in the word “lisp” was rather cruel.
A: Hmmm yeah. So, your “S” problem?
Q: Ah yes! It’s with words like “math” and “maths” – which is correct?
A: Americans favour using “math” while Britain including Australia tend to go with “maths”. Both are, of course, abbreviated forms of “mathematics”.
Q: Yes, and that’s a plural, so problem solved – “maths” is correct, right?
A: Well, not quite. “Mathematics” is actually a mass noun which just happens to have an “s” on the end – much like “economics” or “gymnastics”. It’s treated as a singular – e.g. “Mathematics is (not are) my favourite subject”.
Q: What’s a mass noun again?
A: They’re nouns that can’t be counted… Other examples include things like “rain” or “furniture”.
Q: So why have a plural that’s singular?
A: Well, the original word from the 14th century was in fact “mathematic” – similar perhaps to “arithmetic”. However in the early 17th century, scholars started adding “s” to words for fun – giving us things like “physics” and “economics”. As a result, we also ended up with “mathematics” – not a plural, just the product of an “s” fad.
Q: So, it really SHOULD be “math” then?
A: Americans definitely think this because they don’t see the original word as a plural. But others disagree.
Q: The Brits?
A: Yep. British users argue that “maths” IS a plural and similar to how “statistics” and “stats” works, they feel it works better WITH the “s”.
A: The main point is that no one is really wrong. “Math” started being used in America in the late 1800s; “maths” from 1910 in Britain. They’ve remained separate in the century that followed and both have logic flaws and strengths.
Q: So what about “toward” and “towards” – is that the same situation?
A: Well, yes in that North America once again favours it without an “s” – as the word originated from Middle Ages “toweard”. Britain and Australia use “towards” instead, because that originated from the adverb version “toweards”. Again, no one is right or wrong – it’s purely geography and word evolution.
Q: It seems that Americans don’t like “s”…
A: That’s not entirely correct – in fact, there is one final example where they famously add an “s” much to the chagrin of the rest of the block-building world.
Q: Block-building world?
A: We’re talking about LEGO!
Q: Oh of course, the silent hallway assassin of parental bare feet.
A: Indeed. So in this case, Americans don’t talk about playing with LEGO bricks. Instead they’ll refer to them as “LEGOs” – plural.
Q: Wasn’t he in Lord of the Rings?
A: No, that was Legolas.
Q: Well I think “playing with LEGOs” sounds silly.
A: Once more it all comes down to the type of noun – a mass noun or a count noun. Britain, Australia and the rest of the world think of LEGO as a mass noun, like furniture or rain… or mathematics.
A: Yet Americans prefer to see LEGO as a countable thing – therefore playing with lots of “LEGOs”.
Q: What does the LEGO company say?
A: Good question. They say that “LEGO” is the singular company name and always an adjective. So you have LEGO bricks, LEGO sets and so on. In other words, they’re “team rest of the world” on this one.
Q: I’m guessing, however, that, much like us with “maths”, they’re not going to stop using their “s” on “LEGOs”, yeah?
A: We don’t see them coming around any time soon. It’s just another geographical difference. Grammar Girl online points out plenty of others too, including “sports” (US) vs “sport” (UK) or even “mashed potatoes” (US) vs “mashed potato” (UK).
Q: As long as it’s not “maths potato” bahahaha…
A: Maybe our readers could send us some “email” – or “emails” – if they know of any other words that get used with or without the “s” in this way.
Q: Good idea!
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