More internal inflection

Cartoonist Ryan North wrote me on 9 July about a posting of mine reproducing one of his Dinosaur Comic strips:

… Also, thanks for the shouts out to my comic – I really appreciate it and am also flattered!

North and I both understood this to be an “internal plural” of the composite noun shout-out ‘a favorable mention’ (though that interpretation might not be immediately obvious to all readers; I’ll get to that in a moment). (Earlier discussion of external, internal, and double plurals here — including a somewhat surprising internal plural hards-on for hard-on ‘erection of the penis’.)

You can google up plenty of examples, some with the ‘favorable mention’ sense, some with the sense ‘a public expression of thanks’ (there seem to be still other senses out there), e.g.:

Many shouts out to all the folks I met this weekend at Free Comic Book Day at Comics2Games in Florence, Kentucky! (link)

I only bring this up because I don’t recall many shouts-out to the 24, which is a very cool project run by very cool project … (link)

I wanna give some shouts-out. (link)

Now, the example from North could be understood as having the noun shouts with a postnominal adverbial complemen, and indeed Neal Whitman has argued on his blog that the composite shout-out (however spelled) arose from the noun + adverbial construction by reanalysis, with out assigned to the preceding noun rather than the following adverbial. Along with the reanalysis goes a shift  in prosody and a specialization in meaning.

A composite noun shout-out would normally have external plural marking, with the inflectional affix at the end: shout-outs. This variant is hugely more frequent than the internally marked plural (with the inflectional affix on the head of the composite, the noun). But the internally marked variant does occur, for shout-out and at least a few other similar composite nouns, among them sit-up and backup:


No matter how many sits up you do if your bf% is too high your abs will not show because of the fat covering them up. (link)

Note: Information Technology conducts regular backs-up of all data stored on enterprise servers. (link)

I have two 500GB FireWire drives in a mirrored RAID configuration, which I use for regular backs up of all my music. (link)

Of course, the standard external plurals are vastly more frequent than the internal ones.

12 Responses to “More internal inflection”

  1. to name-check « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Just another weblog « More internal inflection […]

  2. Wasp Keeper Says:

    That is just horribly awkward, on all levels. Damn my native language!

  3. DensityDuck Says:

    Funny, but the Onion beat you to it a long time ago. See “William Safire orders two Whoppers Junior”.

    Also, I’m not sure that you want to quote someone who A: writes in all caps and B: drops the “G” from “TRYING” as an example of valid usage. I’m pretty sure that the internet is full of fucks-up of this sort. (haw!)

  4. Maxxx Says:

    Haha, nice article! Is there any way to know which is the ‘correct English’ phrase to use, ‘shouts out’ or ‘shout outs.’ Or which one is technically better.

  5. arnoldzwicky Says:

    DensityDuck: “Funny, but the Onion beat you to it a long time ago. See “William Safire orders two Whoppers Junior”.”

    I never claimed to have discovered the phenomenon. Internal inflection is a very well-known and much-discussed phenomenon, especially with respect to cases (like attorney general) where it’s prescribed for pluralization.

    Whopper Junior is an interesting case, because it looks like a head noun followed by a modifier, which would call for internal pluralization. But in fact the whole thing is a proper name, so it gets external pluralization.

  6. arnoldzwicky Says:

    DensityDuck: “Also, I’m not sure that you want to quote someone who A: writes in all caps and B: drops the “G” from “TRYING” as an example of valid usage. I’m pretty sure that the internet is full of fucks-up of this sort.”

    I’m not recommending usages here, but reporting on them. Some uses come from literate writers (like Ryan North), some from writers with a fair number of non-standard, regional, etc. features in their writing — features that are not inadvertent errors, but just non-standardisms, regionalisms, etc.

    Everyone, including literate writers, makes inadvertent errors (and I’ve studied a number of types of them), and the language of less literate writers isn’t more full of inadvertent errors than the language of more literate types.

    By the way, you can get a modest number of hits for fucks-up as the plural of fuck-up. The usage is non-standard, but it’s not a slip of the tongue (or pen).

  7. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Maxxx: “Is there any way to know which is the ‘correct English’ phrase to use, ’shouts out’ or ’shout outs.’ Or which one is technically better.”

    Nominal expressions of the form V + Prt (screw-up, take-off, etc.) are in fact compound nouns (rather than syntactic phrases), so they’d be expected to have external pluralization, and that’s by far the predominant pattern.

    In contrast, verbal expressions of the form V + Prt are syntactic phrases, so they are inflected on the head (the V): Kim screws up a lot, The plane takes off at noon (cf. many screw-ups, afternoon take-offs). Internal pluralization of the nouns might have originated by analogy with the verb pattern.

  8. arnoldzwicky Says:

    E-mail from a reader:

    what’s the plural of “Chicken-In-A-Biskit”? “Chickens-In-A-Biskit”? That’s clearly incorrect, since you have multiple “biskit”s; so is “Chicken-In-A-Biskits”. “Chickens-In-A-Biskits” seems closest, but it still has the incorrect “a”, and it doesn’t imply even distribution of chicken to biskit – i.e. there may be several chickens in one biskit, while another biskit may be completely lacking in the chicken department.

    Some complexity here. There’s a food preparation known as “chicken in a biscuit” (or “chicken in biscuits”), involving chicken (the meat, not a whole chicken) in a biscuit — either a preparation of diced chicken cooked in sauce or fried chicken pieces; since this is a food preparation, the expression is often capitalized (Chicken in a Biscuit). Then there’s a line of In A Biskit snack crackers put out by Nabisco since 1968; the most well-known flavor is Chicken In A Biskit (which, entertainingly, seems to contain no chicken, except in the U.S., where there’s a small amount of chicken), sometimes spelled Chicken-In-A-Biskit.

    The first of these has the mass noun “chicken”, so it doesn’t have a plural. It can be individuated with a head noun like “order” or “serving”, and the resulting expression can be pluralized: “two orders/servings of Chicken in a Biscuit (or Chicken in Biscuits)”.

    The second is transparently a proper name, and proper names present special difficulties for pluralization. If “Chicken in a Biskit” is taken to refer only to the brand, then to get an expression referring to one cracker (or several) you need an individuation device: “a Chicken in a Biskit cracker (or crisp)”, two Chicken in a Biskit crackers (or crisps)”. Or if you’re willing to think of “Chicken in a Biskit” as referring to one cracker, then external pluralization is possible: “Chicken in a Biskits” (fairly large number of hits for this). Finally, if you take the “chicken” of “Chicken in a Biskit” to be a count noun, then internal pluralization is possible: “Chickens in a Biskit” (very small number of hits for this one).

  9. Steve Says:

    I’ve wondered about “hell of a guy”, if you have several around at once. Perhaps this needs an individuation device? “Each of you is a hell of a guy”?

    Hells of guys would be more fun though: “you all are hells of guys.”

  10. arnoldzwicky Says:

    A/One hell of is a complex modifier, with very constrained syntax: it combines with a head that is a singular count noun with the indefinite determiner a. It’s one of a family of modifiers (involving conventionalized epithets) that are similarly constrained: a honey/bitch/bear/doozy/… of.

    So “Each of you is a hell of a guy” (or “Every one of you is a hell of a guy”) would work, though it strikes me as wordy and awkward (and it’s not attested on the web, except in this very comment.

    But people are inclined to want to overcome the restriction to indefinite singular count heads. George Carlin playfully suggested “hells of guys” as the plural of “a hell of a guy”, and quite a few people have puzzled over the possibility; a few seem to have hit on it unreflectingly: [singer/songwriter Bill Callaghan in an interview:] “Neil and Will are hells of guys. I did my first real tour with Neil in I think it was ’92, so I have a special affection for him.” (link)

  11. What are the haps « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] are the haps By arnoldzwicky Thanks to our shout-outs/shouts-out exchange, Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics fame) and I have been going back and forth about his use of […]

  12. Ask AZBlog: googled maps NP « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] form reminded me your post on internal inflection only with “ed” suffix for past tense, rather than “s” suffix for plural (as […]

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