You say tomay-to, I say tom-ahto, let’s call the whole thing off

Here in the land of Oz-stray-lia, we take great pride in drawing out our vowels, particularly that long aaaaayyy in Oz-traaaaaaayyyy-lia, as much as possible. It’s what makes us Oz-traaaay-lian. Well, that and our universal love of beaches and sport and draping ourselves in an Aussie Flag and a pair of thongs* before we go up to the shop to buy milk.

Note, however, that even though we Aussies all love sport so much, we don’t commonly refer to sports. As much as we adore it, one sport seems to be enough for us. Now, I’m not saying we never put an s on the end of the word, but over here, it’s stinkin’ hot, mate, so if you can save a little bit of energy by cutting a word short, even by one letter, you do.

Or perhaps it’s that, in our Australian minds at least, if not in the dictionary, sport is satisfactory as both the singular and plural noun. After all, we don’t add an “s” to other plural nouns and refer to sheeps, deers or pantss, believe it or not, even if we are uncouth and run around draped in a flag.

Here at It Keeps Me Wondering Laboratories (TM), unfortunately we don’t have a grammar expert on staff. Regrettably, the nearest we have to a grammar expert is someone who got an A in Year 12 English and has a dictionary on her phone. To discover, therefore, whether the word sport is a singular or plural noun, the team here at IKMWL had to embark on some rigorous online research. However, after googling at least 2 different online dictionaries, our research budget for this project ran out, so we are unable to answer that question. I’m sure some of you will be able to, however, and perhaps you will be generous enough to let us know what the definitive answer is. (Please address all correspondence to It Keeps Me Wondering Laboratories, in your capital city. No stamp required, as long as you post it before 6pm on the second Monday of the month.)

I have no doubt that someone with superior knowledge of grammar could explain this (and use better grammar in that previous phrase), but the IKMW research team hypothesised that sport is a lot like fish: you can have one fish, you can have 2 fish (even a red fish or a blue fish), and you can also have a whole pond full of fish – making fish both a singular and plural noun – yet I don’t think it’s incorrect to refer to fishes. Whoever wrote that story in the Bible about the loaves and fishes certainly thought so anyway, and I can see why. If it had been called The Loaves and The Fish, the dramatic point of the story may have been missed.

One fish. (Blue fish.)

One fish. (Blue fish.)

Pic: Dr Seuss Wiki

I frequently find myself reading American authors, or perusing the headings of news reports syndicated from America, where sport is used as though the word is singular, and requires an “s” to become plural.

Thus, in Australia we would say “Well, that was the news for today. Now, to sport” “I used to play a lot of sport” “She does a lot of sport at school” “What sport do you play?” In America, I gather the equivalent sentences would be “….Now, to sports”, “I used to play a lot of sports” “She does a lot of sports at school,” “What sports do you play?”

The funny thing is that when it comes to maths, the discrepancy is the other way around. Because in Australia we generally say maths, rather than math, which Americans say. 

Of course, in this case, both of us are abbreviating the word mathematics. Our research team here at IKMW Labs also spent some time looking up the definition of mathematics to determine whether it should be classed as a singular or plural noun. Is it a singular area of study, or a plural collective of infinitely recurring little numbers and plus and minus signs that all band together to stand up for their rights?

Our research team found that mathematics is “the abstract science of number, quantity, and space, either as abstract concepts (pure mathematics ), or as applied to other disciplines such as physics and engineering (applied mathematics ),”  a definition which did not directly answer our question. They pondered this definition for some time over an extended tea break, and the majority of the research team were of the opinion that this makes mathematics a plural noun, on the basis that the study of concepts incorporating the idea of infinity surely has to be a plural noun when there is an infinite amount of stuff hidden inside it. (This train of thought led me to wonder whether infinity is a singular or plural noun). (At this point I’m starting to question why we embarked upon this particular line of research. I will be checking back on the minutes from that meeting to see just whose idea this was.)

If you follow the logic that I used regarding sport, that would mean that math should be sufficient as a plural noun. It shouldn’t require the addition of an “s.” So why do Aussies keep the “s”? Could it be because if you take the “s” off the end of the mathematics, the word becomes an adjective, mathematic, eg, this is a rather difficult mathematic equation

Self explanatory really.  There are 2 fish.

Self explanatory really.

Pic: Dr Seuss Wiki

I don’t know the answer to this puzzle, and I regret to report to all our shareholders that funding for this research project has now come to an end. The all-expenses paid trip to LA and Disneyland taken by the team here at IKMW Labs was a lot of fun, and was crucial to our research, as it allowed us to confirm that Americans do, indeed, say “sports” and “math” even in real life and not just on TV. However that part of the research used up most of our funds so we have not been able to come up with any conclusion at this stage, as to why Australians add an “s” to “math.”

As a side note to this project, while writing up our findings, I’ve discovered that, probably in any country in the world, writing the word sport more than a few times can cause the writer to start wondering if she is using the correct word, or whether she has misspelled it. After staring too long at the word sport, it looks quite ridiculous, a sort of hybrid between short and spurt, words surely never heard out on the playing field without signifying a failure of some sort or other.

And by the way, I’m Australian, so yes,  I say Tom-AH-dow.

And pot-AAAAAY-dow.

*

 

* in American, thongs (pronounced “thongs”) are flip-flops. (pronounced “flip-flops”).

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. abyssbrain

     /  March 8, 2015

    That’s called the law of conservation lol,
    US – math and sports
    Australia – maths and sport.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Well I don’t know if that’s a real law or whether you are “pulling my leg” (?possibly an Aussie turn of phrase) but I’ll accept that! Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  2. We surely can extend your research for a day. Sit at home, google some more, and enjoy your Labour Day by working 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  3. First point: any attempt to apply logic to grammar and language usage will result in frustration and the tearing of hair. What is considered correct in language is determined by usage, not by logic.

    Second point: You overlook the fact that both Australia and the US get their language from a third party, England. So you both started out with the same language, that which these days is usually referred to as British English, and adapted it to your individual purposes.

    In British English, we say “maths”, not “math”, and Australia has inherited and kept this usage. The US inherited it but has altered it. Logic plays no part in the discussion, nor does any consideration of singular and plural. Individual whimsy is the complete explanation.

    Much the same case can be made for “sport” except that this word has a much larger set of meanings than does “math/maths”. For example, “sport” can be used as a form of address similar to “mate” or “pal” or you can say that someone is “a good sport”. You can have plural sports (athletics, football, marathon running, etc) and you can have singular sport as an abstract concept. Ultimately, though, whether radio and TV link(wo)men pass the listener/viewer on to “sport” or “sports” depends entirely on the linguistic custom of the country. Logic plays no part. (Did I already say that?)

    You got “Tom-AH-dow” a “pot-AAAAAY-dow” from British English and kept them. Americans got them too but changed the first to “tom-AY-to”. They changed a lot of other stuff too. Very whimsical, these Americans.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Thanks for your response!

      I was aware when writing this, that both Australia and America derive our language from the English, and I was also aware that we are not the only English-speaking countries who use these words in one of those forms. I was going to try and briefly acknowledge those points, but in the interests of keeping my word count from exploding, as my posts so often do, I decided it wasn’t essential, since the post was pretty light-hearted, and not a serious attempt at presenting an etymology of the words. But I loved reading your detailed response so thank you very much for reading and responding with your well considered points!

      Like

      Reply

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