Word Court

Illustration by Greg Clarke

Karen Wilhelm, of Alexandria, Va., writes, “As an Air Force officer with occasion to write strategic documents (although I’m recently retired), I was always fighting a losing battle over the plural of the term weapon system. To signify more than one such system, wouldn’t you say weapon systems? I’ve seen the term pluralized with any possible combination of added s’s—including weapons system—with the most common being weapons systems. I’d like to know the correct usage.”

You probably thought you were asking a simple question. But first we need to decide whether one of the things is actually a weapon system—or a weapons system. The Department of Defense, which buys the things, and Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which make them, use both names on their Web sites, though references to a weapon system (and weapon systems) outnumber the alternative by a convincing but not overwhelming margin. However, the opposite is true of mentions in the press, and the preference for weapons system (and weapons systems) does become overwhelming in elite newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

I asked Merrill Perlman, the New York Times copy chief, about the thinking behind the paper’s choice. She told me, “For us, the logic is that most systems that employ weapons employ more than one—not just multiple weapons of the same type employed in different ways, but often different kinds of weapons as well—for example, radar and interceptors.” If you go along with that, then we’re talking about weapons systems. If you’d rather follow the DOD’s lead, call them weapon systems. The only thing not to call more than one of them is weapons system.

Julie Harding, of Madison, N.J., writes, “I am a high-school English teacher and tend to be particular about proper usage, but I don’t like to correct people—especially parents. An expression that has been bothering me lately is far and few between. Until recently, I had always heard few and far between, as in ‘Good movies are few and far between these days.’ When I hear the same mistake often enough, I begin to doubt myself. What do you say?”

You’re right. The standard expression is definitely few and far between. It was already an established phrase by 1799, when the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell used it in “The Pleasures of Hope,” referring to “angel-visits.” The phrase is worth keeping straight not just because it’s standard but also because it makes sense. Granted, “There are few between makes sense, too—but in that case, what is far supposed to be doing?

You’re also right, by the way, to hold yourself back from giving unsolicited advice about language. Just pretend you don’t notice the mistake and keep saying the phrase the correct way yourself.

Edward Doogan, of Philadelphia, writes, “I have a question about the term UFO. It is my understanding that the term refers to any object moving in the sky that the viewer is unable to identify—hence unidentified flying object. Now I hear many people use this term to refer to supposed alien aircraft. It drove me crazy when I heard a host on a National Public Radio show say that people in Texas thought they saw a UFO. She meant an alien craft, but she said UFO. By definition, they did see a UFO: it was flying in the sky and they couldn’t identify it. Am I right in my understanding of this term?”

You’re right about what the letters stand for, but I think you’re being too literal about what the abbreviation means. Is a flying saucer an actual saucer that flies? Is a golden parachute either golden or a parachute? UFO is a useful term that stops short of declaring that, yes, the thing is an alien spacecraft while leaving open the possibility that it might be one.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, 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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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.

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