Sallys

Leah Hager Cohen, review of Follow Me by Joanna Scott, New York Times Book Review of 19 April, p. 1:

That’s Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind … — not to be confused with Sally Bliss … — heroine of Joanna Scott’s latest novel, “Follow Me.” But the Sallys bear more than a passing resemblance …

The point I’m interested in here is the plural Sallys. The English spelling rule for plurals that would normally apply to Sally would call for the final Y to be converted to an I and then for ES to be added; compare tallies, rallies, and in fact sallies (in various senses). The plural Sallies would be well-formed according to the usual spelling rules for English. Instead, we get the plural Sallys, which visually preserves the name Sally; it is faithful to the form of the name. There are two conditions here, both of which make sense, and they are in conflict, a conflict that has to be resolved in favor of one or the other (or the alternative Sally’s, which is faithful and also clearly sets off the mark of the plural, but is heavily disfavored because it looks like it has a “greengrocer’s apostrophe”).

This is familiar territory for me. I have quite a list of cases of conflicts between well-formedness and faithfulness, including this very case: the spelling of plurals of proper names ending in Y.

(The terms faithfulness and well-formedness are borrowed from Optimality Theory. They express no value judgments.)

From my Language Log posting on the spelling of plurals:

… a heated argument sprung up [in sci.lang] over whether the well-formed [Germanies] or the faithful [Germanys] was the “correct” plural.  Now, conflicts between well-formedness and faithfulness are sometimes resolved in favor of well-formedness, sometimes resolved in favor of faithfulness, and sometimes result in variation, between individuals or within individuals.  It appears that there is considerable between-individuals variation on Germanies vs. Germanys, and I suspect that there is also significant within-individuals variation for pluralization of proper names in general, with different treatments for different names (nobody’s going to pluralize Mary as Maries, even people who consistently pluralize Germany as Germanies). I’m lenient about Germanies, but adamant that the plural of my family name is Zwickys, not Zwickies; a plural Zwickys is unambiguously the plural of Zwicky, while a plural Zwickies is ambiguous between that and the plural of Zwickie (which is also an attested family name) [or of Zwicki, again an attested family name].

The Language Log posting here has a list of some postings on Faith vs. WF, and there’s been at least one more since. In addition, many Language Log postings on the use and avoidance of taboo expressions are framed (or could be framed) in terms of conflicts between Faith and WF.

4 Responses to “Sallys”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    Of course, many editions of The Rules of English Spelling include the Proper Nouns Counterexception under the When the Last Letter is Y Exception to the Default Plural Rule. In my personal copy, it’s right there alongside the When the Penultimate Letter is a Vowel Counterexception.

    I am really surprised that “Two Germanies” returns as many matches on Google Books as “Two Germanys”. But, now that I think of it, I have always read and written “the Two Sicilies”, which kingdom must predate the addition of the Proper Nouns Counterexception. For comparison, “The McGillicuddies” outnumbers “The McGillicuddys” 51:6 on Google Books. And, although I am Irish, I have never met the Murphies.

  2. mollymooly Says:

    Oops, I meant “McGillicuddys” outnumber “McGillicuddies”

  3. John Baker Says:

    A conflict of this type that I’ve noticed recently is between Treasuries and Treasurys, when used to refer to debt obligations issued by the U.S. Treasury. The U.S. Treasury itself seems to use Treasuries, see, e.g., http://www.treas.gov/tic/snetus.txt, but the Wall Street Journal and many other secondary sources use Treasurys, see, e.g., http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20090421-717543.html. It seems to me that Treasurys has only been used for a few years, but this may just be the recency illusion. It’s difficult to search for these terms, as most databases assume that I also want to see other versions of the word.

  4. Ian Preston Says:

    You say “nobody’s going to pluralize Mary as Maries” but I admit that I would have and I don’t seem to be alone. Googling the phrase seems to turn up plenty of references to the “two Maries” present at the crucifixion, for example, even if it is not the most common spelling.

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