Word Court

More
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.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Social Security: The Greatest Government Policy of All Time?

It's the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history. So why do some people hate it?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In