From the recent Linguistic Society of America meetings in Salt Lake City, via Mike Pope, this sign in the window at the downtown restaurant Mollie & Ollie:


Of linguistic note: the spelling STIR-FRYS — rather than STIR-FRIES — for the plural of the C[ount] noun STIR-FRY (most commonly spelled as hyphenated STIR-FRY, but occasionally solid STIRFRY or separated STIR FRY). This spelling preserves the identity of the base word FRY and so treats the noun STIR-FRY as an inviolable unit.

The restaurant. M&O are earnestly natural, environmentally responsible, and local:

We care about quality and have carefully selected suppliers, growers and farmers who are environmentally responsible, humane and where possible, local. Our food and ingredients are natural, fresh and flavorful. We give you the opportunity to design and craft your own delicious meal and we do it quickly to keep pace with your day.

They’re also playful in their naming practices, as in this section of their menu:


Thai Coconut Curry, Chimicurri Pesto, Good To Be Khing Curry, Savory Lemonlicious, Citrus-Roasted Garlic Goodness, Ollie’s Awesome Quinoa, Santa Fe, Keep It Simple, Teriyaki Chicken

Digression: C/M. On their website, M&O offer

(A) breakfast, scrambles, stir fry, salads, wraps, sides, desserts, beverages

Here, STIR-FRY is treated as a M[ass] noun (like BREAKFAST), as it is on M&O’s delivery van:


while elsewhere on the website, in #2, we get the C version.

Many foodstuff nouns are most commonly used as M, but can be countified for reference to types or kinds: WINE, SOUP, CHEESE, and BREAKFAST. (In (A), BREAKFAST is treated as M, but the menu could have offered breakfasts rather than breakfast. In contrast, (A) offers desserts (C usage), though it could have offered dessert (M usage).)

Other foodstuff nouns are resolutely C: obvious ones like EGG and APPLE, but also, in (A), SCRAMBLE and WRAP. They can be massified, via the “Universal Grinder”, as in:

I’m afraid you have some egg / apple / scramble / wrap on your dress.

But otherwise, these nouns are C, and would occur on menus in their PL forms.

Some foodstuff nouns — SALAD, for instance — seem to almost evenly balanced between C and M classification, and it would be natural to treat them as simply having alternative classifications.

For me, STIR-FRY is basically C, whether referring to the foodstuff generically or to particular stir-fried dishes, but for the folks at M&O, it obviously can go either way.

The entry in OED3 (June 2015) treats it as basically C, but with at least one M cite:

Origin: Formed within English, by conversion. Etymology: < stir-fry v. Food or a dish prepared by stir-frying.

1955   Chicago Daily Tribune 13 May ii. 4/1   The Chinese call such cooking ‘stir fry’. [looks M, but might be modeled on Chinese usa]

1978   Washington Post (Nexis) 24 Sept. (Mag. section) 69   Gone are the days when a suburban Chinese restaurant could easily get away with .. a gluey celery stir-fry called chow mein. [C]

1986   Financial Times 18 Jan. (Weekend FT section) p. xi/4   Country a gently cooked dish, not a stir-fry. [C]

1997   B. Witt Pan-Asian Express 12   This is a soy sauce flavored with straw mushrooms and is..delightful sprinkled over any stir-fry. [C]

2013   Self Apr. 56 (caption)   Head off soreness by chowing on stir-fry with a few teaspoons of ginger. [looks M, but is probably C with article omission in a telegraphic register]

Two notes here. First, the assignment of nouns to the categories C and M is by no means arbitrary: these assignments have much to do with the nature of the referents and with the role these referents play in sociocultural practices; but there is room for considerable variation, and a certain amount of arbitrariness, in the assignments. Discussion in the Page on C/M on this blog.

Second, it will become important that, as the OED3 entry points out, the noun STIR-FRY is a nouning of the verb STIR-FRY: the FRY in it is a noun, but one derived from a verb, and the meaning of the compound noun STIR-FRY depends crucially on the very specific meaning of the V + V compound STIR-FRY.  In consequence, the noun STIR-FRY is a tight unit, in which the categorization of FRY as a noun is none too clear.

Final Y > I in spelling. When Mike Pope posted #1 on Facebook, it elicited comments about an assortment of peculiarities in English plurals, but in fact FRYS for standard FRIES is a purely orthographic phenomenon, having nothing to do with the morphosyntactic system of English. What’s at issue is whether the letter Y is preserved in the spelling of the plural or whether the spelling follows the rule that final Y > I before a vowel letter (in noun plurals, in 3sg PRS forms of verbs, in -ER comparatives and -EST superlatives, and in -ER agentive / instrumental nouns: TWO BERRIES, TERRY SHIMMIES, MUCH FUNNIER / THE FUNNIEST, BIG PARTIER).

It’s an issue of faithfulness to the base (Faith, for short) or well-formedness according to orthographic rules for modern English (WF, for short). The tension between Faith and WF, in many areas of language use, is a recurrent topic on this blog (there’s a Page on it on this blog), and this little quirk of orthography has gotten its share of attention:

on LLog on 4/9/07, “Ducky identity”:

… A couple of years ago, this very question arose in the newsgroup sci.lang, where a heated argument sprung up over whether the well-formed (1) [Germanies] or the faithful (2) [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).

Which brings us back to the rubber duckies (or duckys).  The OTC site seems to be treating rubber ducky as a kind of proper name (for the type Rubber Ducky, I suppose) and then varying between the two treatments of the plural, the well-formed duckies or the faithful duckys; or it’s varying between singular duckie and ducky, and consistently using the faithful duckys for the latter.  Either way, faithfulness enters into it.

on 6/23/09, “BlackBerrys and BlackBerrying”:

… The article has BlackBerrys as the plural throughout. This is the plural spelling that is “faithful” to the base, by preserving the spelling BlackBerry. The alternative is to subject the base to the “change Y to I and add ES” rule that’s usual for pluralizing nouns spelled with a final Y following a consonant letter; that’s the “well-formed” version.

… And there is variation here. Though the Times seems to have gone for Faith [BlackBerrys], other writers opt for WF [BlackBerries]

on 12/1/1, “Data points: Faith vs. WF 12/1/10”:

… the ordinary rules for spelling English call for the Y of PARTY to be converted to I before the suffix -ER (and others): someone who parties (note the I) is a PARTIER, not a PARTYER. That’s WF. But in this spelling the identity of the base word PARTY is obscured — not ordinarily a problem, but it is a problem in the case of the proper name Tea Party. So TEA PARTYER is faithful to the base word.

Among the similar examples I’ve posted about are the plurals of rubber duckyGermanyZwicky, and BlackBerry. There is variation in all of these cases, but the details are different in the different cases. For Tea Party, the WF variant seems to be hugely more frequent than the Faith variant that Pollan and Schlosser (or their copyeditors) went for.

Fries of a different color. The noun stir-fry is a nouning of the compound verb stir-fry; given its reference, it can occur in either sg or pl, giving rise to the question of how the pl should be spelled.

Then there are French fries (similarly home fries; see this posting), a compound apparently derived historically by truncation, in particular the sort of truncation I’ve called beheading (see this Page). From OED3 (Sept. 2009) under French:

French fries n. orig. and chiefly N. Amer. = French fried potatoes n.   (also occasionally in sing.).

The truncated item is a noun occurring virtually only in the pl, its grammatical number inherited from the truncated head (though if you have to individuate, (a) French fry is the way to go). But there’s no question of how to spell the pl given the spelling of the sg, since the sg is not involved in the derivation.




One Response to “STIR FRYS”

  1. Bigmacbear Says:

    This reminds me of the compound noun “fish fry” and the big differences in usage in places I’ve lived.

    Growing up in Cincinnati, a fish fry was an event, often put on by a Catholic church or affiliated organization, at which fried fish was served usually with French fries etc.

    In Rochester, a fish fry was a menu item in a restaurant consisting of fried fish and the usual sides. Only occasionally would one go to a fish fry (in the first sense) to eat a fish fry (in the second sense).

    And in Seattle, the term is simply not used in either sense, probably because of the variety of fresh seafood available and the amazing methods of preparing it that don’t involve frying. Go figure.

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