Friday, August 15, 2008

Don't Assume the Boss is Grammar-Smarter Than You -- Especially If the Boss Works in Hollywood

A friend wrote recently with a question. She had just applied for a job with a powerhouse entertainment company that made her take a grammar quiz. One of the questions: What’s the plural of pizza?

My friend, having been raised in society and not in a hole in the ground, is fully aware of the word “pizzas.” I have no doubt that she has heard it thousands of times and said it thousands of times, too.

But she let the question throw her, and that was her big mistake.

Pizza? Well, pizza’s a food. And if you have one pepperoni pizza and then you order a mushroom pizza, what you really have is more PIZZA, right?

I’m paraphrasing her explanation, but that was the general idea.

My friend felt stupid, but she was actually being very smart. She was exploring her innate understanding of “mass nouns” versus “count nouns” – even though she had never heard the terms.

Count nouns are countable things, like “smiles.”
Mass (or non-count) nouns are words like “happiness.”

Yes, there’s some overlap. You can have meat and more meat but several types of meats.

“Pizza” has even clearer boundaries than meat (crusty, delicious, circular boundaries stuffed with cheese if you're lucky). We are much more likely to say “a pizza” and “some meat” than “a meat” and “some pizza.”

But that doesn’t even matter. What matters is the quiz asked for a plural. Mass nouns, for practical purposes, don’t have plurals. (Unless you really stretch it, such as with “happinesses.”) So the question could have only referred to the countable “pizza” and not the mass one.

My friend overthought it and got it wrong.

The lesson here is one we knew all along: To make it in Hollywood, check your brain at the big white sign.

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Joel said...

So now this is like a train wreck or some sort of evil vortex. My mind irrationally gravitates to the thought of plural pizza. Yes, I get what your saying and I would never say "two pizza" (though I find myself increasingly tempted so I shouldn't categorically rule it out; yes, actually, it makes more sense the more I look at it). On the other hand, I am much more likely to speak of "some pizza" than "a pizza" and my brain just wants to get lost in the plurality of its massness. It's that tongue to the missing tooth thing again. Eek.

I do appreciate this post and it is helpful. But it comes with it's own special hazards--maybe just for some of us, I suppose.

Oh, and think that "many happinesses," like "very dead," is not only valid, but beautiful, compelling and fun--and, yes, somehow, part of what breathes life into the language. And I can't help but wonder about the potential massness of erstwhile countable nouns and the countability of other ostensibly nebulous masses. Sometimes I'm convinced there's something perverse about my relationship with words.

Or maybe I just shouldn't respond to your blog late on a Friday afternoon. . . .

June Casagrande said...

I'm laughing at the perverseness line, but I hope it really was meant in jest.

Yes, you do have a really unique relationship with words. I see the (let's call it) intimacy you're talking about. But unless it's taking you down some dark roads I won't know about till I see you on "To Catch a Parser," it's a GOOD thing!

So, happinesses all around.

Re the other stuff, I agree it gets fuzzy and dissectable and interesting. That's why I tried to choose my words carefully, not ruling out "happinesses" altogether but not to slip into a sort of morass of mealymouthiness (which is always a danger for me, middle child that I am).

LL Blackwell said...

My first thought to your question was, well "pizze" of course!

That would be the Italian plural. Never studied the language long enough to get deeply into mass and count nouns, although it did seem like they pluralize just about everything, maybe because they do it so beautifully (changing vowels at the end, instead of all those messy S's (which is a pain in the tush to pluralize on its own).

June Casagrande said...

Yeah, the Italian method is hard to get used to. But after a couple weeks in class, I started to see its benefits.

The very idea that in English we use the same letter to form plurals and possessives -- and that it's the same letter that's often contracted for "is" -- well, that's just evil.

Pizze it is.


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