Sunday, January 29, 2012

A singular concern

Oh dear, rather a long time since I posted.  It's been a migraine/insomnia/backache sort of week, with lots of work stuffed in between the inoperable periods, so that may explain the gap.

I have plenty to post about, mostly about seeds and seed catalogs (went to a fun seed exchange yesterday, got to meet Ira Wallace and hear her speak, got all my seed orders in after collecting the freebies of which there were plenty) but today, while putting together the data that will hopefully allow me to create a coherent map for the demo garden (mapping my own garden is a luxury I will not have time for, I suspect), a linguistic puzzle occurred to me, trivial to be sure, but I'll share it anyway.

So, when we're making lists of vegetables (and other plants too, I think, but I'll stick with veggies for now), whether in a catalog or for planning purposes or whatever, why do we state some of them as singular and some as plural?

I give you some gratuitous (and singular) Swiss chard, and carry on, citing from the Southern Exposure catalog in Ira's honor, as I think their usage is completely typical.

Singular vegetables:

Gratuitous plural tomatoes
Plural vegetables:

Some oddities: broccoli is an Italian plural that's treated as both singular and plural in English; collards doesn't really have a singular; Southern Exposure makes the choice to list "Muskmelon" in the singular, but I usually see "Melons" (and often "Watermelons" too).

So why these default choices?  I considered the idea that plural vegetables are those that bear multiple product on one plant, so you can't really have just one (although I have had tomato plants like that), but then one hopes to get more than one okra per plant and squash are notorious for overproducing.  You can have just one plant of cabbage or chard, but one corn plant is not good strategy.  Radishes produce one root per plant, as do all the other root vegetables in the plural list, and artichokes, if you can get them to bear at all in this climate, usually have one flower bud, but are always plural in catalogs.

Most but not all of the cabbage family plants end up on the singular list, including all the leafy ones (if you discount collards as above).  In fact leafy things are generally singular, unless you call them "greens."  Leeks and onions are always plural, but you never hear "garlics."  Eggplant, the fruiting nightshade family plant, is routinely singular (even if you call it aubergine), whereas peppers and tomatoes are always plural.

So I really have no answer other than "tradition" though I expect it could be investigated.  I can tell you that an excerpt from "Landreth's Companion for the Garden and Farm" of 1884 (conveniently provided in the fancy new catalog) gives us much the same usage except that carrot, leek, onion, pepper and tomato are singular.  I'd have to burrow around a bit to find older sources than that.

Probably I should be concerning myself with more important matters (like making the damn map) but distraction gives life savor.  Along with vegetables.  (Please ignore implied lack of verb-subject agreement.  Vegetables are usually plural, and somehow not so appealing when not.)


  1. I love this post, and i laughed a lot! And i think you are the first person who thought of that, rather who posted it, as many might have asked but didn't publish for many to see. Maybe the "old" horticulturists and botanists know (but they will not reply because they are still young!). Yes i also wish this can be explained, maybe you should send this to the academe for clarification. What about the suffix "ist" or "er"? This has somehow been maybe tradition too, what is the rule for saying botanist instead of botaner, or photographer instead of photographist! Someone might rather be an anthropologer than an anthropologist! What about a gardenist rather than a gardener! Oh endless... hahaha!

    1. And then you get the argument over horticulturist vs. horticulturalist. Language is a funny thing!

  2. "but distraction gives life savor. Along with vegetables." I just realized that, possibly related to verb agreements, I interpreted this as "but distraction gives life savor. And distraction also gives life vegetables."

    1. Ha! Well, distraction gives life vegetables at unexpected times, maybe...