A correspondent 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 with the header

A rather famous zero plural

and the one-word body


That rang only the most distant of bells for me, but of course I have on-line resources, from which I concluded that entheta is a Hubbardism (as in L. Ron Hubbard), a bit of Scientology-speak. And that it’s not a zero plural of a count noun, but instead a (singular) mass noun.

This is the sort of mistake-trap that many people, Bill Safire among them, have fallen into, as I explained (in considerable detail) back in 2006 in a Language Log posting entitled “Plural, mass, collective”. The underlying problem is that English has several — at least three — ways for words to (speaking loosely) “mean more than one”, via plural count nouns (messages), singular mass nouns (mail), and singular collective count nouns (group). So a quick look at the meaning isn’t going to help you much in figuring out what’s going on with any particular word.

Instead, we have to look at the syntax. Putting collectives aside (which I think we can safely do in the case of entheta), there’s still the problem that PL C and SG M nouns (hereafter, simply PL and M) share an awful lot of syntax, so much so that in my work on determiners and mass/count assignment, I’ve referred to them together as E (for, roughly, “extended”) words.

The clearest contexts for distinguishing PL from M Ns are those in which plural vs. singular has syntactic concomitants, in particular: (1) as heads of NPs that have determiners distinguishing them (*this/✓these messages, ✓this/*these mail); (2) in subject NPs, with verb agreement that distinguishes them (mail ✓is/*are piling up, messages *is/✓are piling up); and (3) as antecedents for definite personal pronouns (I got mail, but I couldn’t read ✓it/*them, I got messages, but I couldn’t read *it/✓them).

But to return to our enthetic muttons: It starts with the Scientology term theta (often capitalized, in the spirit of abstract nouns), which is in OED2 (though entheta is not), glossed as ‘creative energy or spirit’. The cites (many of which are for the derived count noun thetan, which isn’t relevant here) aren’t syntactically helpful in distinguishing PL from M. The closest is one from Cyra McFadden’s 1977 novel The Serial, set in trendy Marin County CA (should I be ashamed to admit I have a copy?):

Marlene said Theta taught you how to overcome Specific Negatives.

This has Theta as the subject of a clause, but unfortunately the verb taught is past tense and doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural, and there are no tell-tale determiners or anaphoric pronouns.

Still, glossing theta with determinerless abstract nouns (so almost surely M) suggests that theta is itself M. Switching the object clause of the Marlene sentence to the present tense makes it very likely that the subject is singular (so, M):

Marlene said Theta ✓teaches/??teach you how to …

Turning to entheta, there are predicative uses, like this one:

My friend exchanged a shocked glance with a fellow tech staff member. But they kept their mouths shut. To point out the lie would have been “entheta.” My friend left the event.

This started me thinking about the relationship of “theta” and “entheta” to truth [M] and lies [PL]. Entheta, of course, is “enturbulated theta,” and enturbulate, according to my Ethics book, means “agitation or disturbance, commotion and upset.” [ok, enturbulation means this; enturbulate would mean ‘agitate or disturb, cause commotion or upset’ — but that’s beside the point]

Not only doesn’t this quite discriminate between M and PL, it’s open to an adjectival interpretation of entheta.

The following site gives as its third definition of entheta, taken from LRH himself:

anger, sarcasm, despair, slyly destructive suggestions

mixing one PL in there with three instances of M. And, in any case, most of the discussions of entheta are about the word (or the concept), which, when mentioned rather than used, is of course singular.

Finally, there are sites where entheta is used rather than mentioned and can easily be seen to be M. A few examples:

With Cruise’s latest bit of Kult Krazy™ in wide release, the entheta is flying fast and furious in the mainstream media and it’s open season on the cult, so why aren’t I delighted? (link)

Suck it up you clams, the entheta is flowing and you wont stem the impending flood. (link)

Stats are down, entheta is high and going to get higher, most of the orgs in the US are doing horribly and he’s coming up with solutions like fancy MEST and Column Tech. (link)

(You will have noticed the negative tone of these quotes, which are from sites opposing Scientology.)

I have no quotes with clearly plural entheta, and conclude that the word is M (which is everyday) rather than a zero-marked PL (which is considerably rarer).

Ordinarily I wouldn’t go to so much trouble to demonstrate the M vs. PL status of a word (for background ‘extras, extra actors/performers’, the quote I started with had plural verb agreement, so the PL classification seemed not to require extended argument — though there was a possibly complicating factor I took up in the comments), and I certainly wouldn’t have chosen to muck around in the mysteries of Scientology and the writings of its adherents and its opponents, but I wanted to stress (again) the unreliability of relying on paraphrases and glosses and the importance of looking at the syntactic evidence.

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