Data points: nouning, zero plurals 8/9/10

From Peter Savodnik’s Talk of the Town piece “The Pictures: Blow-up” (New Yorker, 7/26/10), about Gail Boykewich, who makes life-like inflatable dolls (inflatables — note nouning of adjective, either directly or by truncation) for the movies:

Sitting in her studio in the woods [in Oakland, New Jersey], surrounded by paints, pliers, a staple gun, and books on human anatomy, she talked about how annoying it is when “background”–movie-speak for extras–tamper with her art work.

Here we have the count noun background ‘background actor/player’ derived by truncation and then given a zero plural — the verb agreement in “when “background” … tamper with her art work” shows that background in this clause is plural — rather than the regular -s plural (“when “backgrounds” … tamper with her art work”).

I haven’t been able to google up occurrences of the count noun background (singular or plural) in the film sense, because there are so many interfering factors. In particular, there’s the count noun background in a number of other senses, for instance in its use to mean ‘background design, design in the background’ (“You need a lighter background for your blog entries”), which has a regular plural backgrounds, as in this comment on a blog offering background designs for blogs:

Your backgrounds are to die for. (commenter Mima)

But on the very same blog another comment uses background as a zero plural:

Wow these background are fab, and for you do it for free is so kind of you. (commenter Kirsten)

So there probably are some filmic zero plurals out there too.

The topic of zero plurals is, of course, a vast one (periodically touched on in Language Log and here). There’s considerable variability, noun by noun, context by context, and speaker by speaker. Some of the noun-by-noun variability is not entirely idiosyncratic: zero plurals are especially common in certain semantic domains (for instance, names of animals, especially those hunted for food or sport, and names of foodstuffs).

4 Responses to “Data points: nouning, zero plurals 8/9/10”

  1. Rick Barr Says:

    The NYT is often correcting itself (on its blog) because the intrusion of a clause threw a sentence’s agreements into disarray. In this case, the em-dashed clause switches to plural (from background to extras), after which comes the verb. Is it possible that it is because of that clause that the verb was written as tamper and not as tampers? In that case, it would be an inadvertent plural tamper, rather than a zero-plural background.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    To Rick Barr: For a few seconds, I was tempted to think of theNew Yorker example as just an inadvertent “agreement with nearest” error; as you say, these are very common, so common that I’ve largely stopped collecting examples.

    But I really can’t buy this analysis, because it assumes that without that parenthetical the writer would have used the singular tampers: “when background tampers with her art work” strikes me as just impossible.

    There are three ways in English to get singular agreement with a singular subject: (1) if the head noun is a singular count noun, with either (1a) individual or (1b) collective reference; and (2) if the head noun is a (singular) mass noun.

    (1a) is out because in the example we’re looking at, background clearly does not have individual reference, and if it did, it would normally require a determiner; except in special contexts, things like “Man talked to me” are ungrammatical.

    (1b), as in things like “The crowd is restive” can indirectly have reference to the individuals in a collectivity — but a count noun, even a collective one, still normally requires a determiner; *”Family is/are unhappy”.

    (2) is as close as you can get, and mass nouns don’t require a determiner — but mass nouns referring to human beings are very rare indeed.

    So I don’t see any way to get “when background tampers with her art work”, with background referring to extras, to fly, and I have to see background as plural.

  3. Entheta « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Joe Clark has written me (presumably in my role as Zero-Plural Man, possibly because of my recent note on nouning and zero plurals in the case of the noun background ‘movie extras’) a message […]

  4. Rick S Says:

    Mass nouns referring to people may be rare, but I’m not so sure that blocks background (M) tampers. Referring to “extra players” as “background”, i.e. literally pushing them into the background, making them part of the scenery, is rather dehumanizing and de-individualizing. But I’m not sure if that’s the attitude adopted by the industry in general, or Boykewich/Savodnik in particular, when using the term, which I’d never encountered before this post. At any rate, after trying it out a few times with this attitude in mind I didn’t find it hard to read “background” as M.

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