Word Court

Do you have a language dispute?

Send e-mail to Barbara Wallraff at msgrammar@theatlantic.com. Letters become the property of Word Court and may be edited.

CHRIS WOOD, of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, writes, "I am irked by sports media's pretentious use of RBI, in speech and writing, to describe more than one run batted in. Though it is in dictionaries, I find it unnatural, since the initials assume the entire meaning of the term and should allow for an s at the end. More tolerable is a similar practice in the realm of hard news, as when Tom Brokaw or Wolf Blitzer utters the plural WMD ('weapons of mass destruction'). But why not pluralize all abbreviations at the end? If you are going to acknowledge construction and etymology, why not be completely asinine and call the things RsBI?"

Our conventions for pluralizing initialisms are an absolute mess. Some dictionaries give both RBIs and RBI as plural forms of RBI. (The New Oxford American Dictionary also gives ribbies as an informal equivalent.) RBIs is the plural most commonly seen in print. Still, some major newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post—which maybe you think of as pretentious?—and also smaller ones, such as the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal and the Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller-Times, use RBI (or R.B.I.) whether they're describing one or a hundred runs batted in.

The national-desk copy chief of The Washington Post, Bill Walsh, disapproves of this style decision, though, despite what his paper's sports desk does. In his book Lapsing Into a Comma, Walsh wrote, "Three RBI? Is that like three POW? It's silly, if well intentioned, to try to apply this kind of internal logic once you've switched from a spelled-out term to an initialism. The plural of an initialism is the initialism plus s. Prisoner of war/prisoners of war, but POW/POWs. Run batted in/runs batted in, but RBI/RBIs."

That makes sense to me, so I thought I'd consult Walsh about WMD versus WMDs—and, while I was at it, FAQ versus FAQs, for "frequently asked questions." This last term is a bit different, because in the spelled-out version the s does come at the end. The evolving convention is nonetheless to call a list of questions an FAQ.

Walsh told me, "I try to avoid WMD outside quotations, but I think it's clear that the plural should be WMDs, following the POWs principle. FAQ strikes me as a singular noun, even though it stands for a plural concept. An FAQ (or a FAQ, for those who pronounce it 'fack') really means 'a list of frequently asked questions,' not 'a frequently asked questions.'" Very true. Walsh's thoughts about how to treat the plurals of initialisms amount to as sensible a set of principles as you'll find.

NITISH JHA, of Pretoria, South Africa, writes, "English is my first language, so you can imagine my shock and indignation when a French colleague told me that I was using the word orchard incorrectly. Apparently, the word orchard is used in conjunction with non-citrus fruit, whereas for citrus fruit one must use the word grove. Thus we have apple or guava or mango orchard but orange grove and lemon grove. None of the dictionaries I consulted gave a reason for this distinction. For that matter, not all of them even made this distinction explicit. I am looking for an explanation of why such a difference exists, if indeed it does.Can you help?"

I thought it was their own language the French were picky about! I checked fourteen English usage manuals (more than dictionaries, these specialize in drawing fine distinctions) and two dictionaries of synonyms for you. The only book to list either orchard or grove was Richard Soule's 1938 Dictionary of English Synonyms and Synonymous Expressions, with an entry for grove that reads, "Wood, woodland, thicket, copse. See forest." Hmmm.

I also checked databases of recent English-language newspaper articles in the United States and elsewhere. Throughout the English-speaking world citrus grove, orange grove, and lemon grove are indeed seen far more often than citrus orchard, etc. And apple orchard is seen far more often than apple grove. Evidently, newspapers seldom have occasion to mention guava groves or guava orchards, but when they do, the more common phrase is, as you say, guava orchard.

Curiously, though (and contradicting your French colleague's idea that groves produce only citrus fruit), American newspapers use the phrase mango grove more often than they do mango orchard. However, non-U.S. papers use mango orchard more often. But hardly anyone anywhere in the world writes olive orchard; olive grove is far more common.

In sum, there is no hard-and-fast rule about which word to use for stands of fruit trees. Both orchard and grove come to us from Old English, so there isn't even any sense in trying to impose a geographic distinction, as the finicky among us might amuse ourselves by doing with woods (which comes to us from Old English) and forest (from Old French).

Do you have a language dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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