Eggs and Sports and Legos

Okay, so today’s the day for dangerously-obsessional language-issue blogging. Get those safety helmets firmly on, tighten the chinstraps, and we’ll proceed.

Sitting in The Pantry yesterday, as a bit of a breather from the last day of our Big Move to Santa Monica, I was having their yummy sausage, fried potatoes, sourdough toast, and scrambled egg.

Except, rewind that last bit. I wasn’t having scrambled ‘egg’ — as I would have done in Britain. I was having scrambled ‘eggs’. It’s not ‘bacon and egg’; it’s ‘bacon and eggs’. It’s not ‘sausage and egg’; it’s ‘sausage and eggs’. Granted, I was having more than one egg, but they’d been, well, they’d been scrambled, so what was left was, um, well, it was egg.

I’m probably extrapolating wildly here, but here’s a question: Is there a tendency in US English to prefer count nouns over mass nouns? At least in situations of ambiguity?

There’s a more obvious example. More than one sport makes, of course, ‘sports’, pretty much everywhere. But the field of endeavour that encompasses all sports splits British and American English neatly down the middle. In British English, the field of endeavour is ‘sport’. In American English the field of endeavour (ahem, endeavor) is ‘sports’. Hence Dickie Davies presenting a cheesy ’70s Saturday afternoon programme in Britain called ‘World of Sport’. Might seem to an American to involve only the one sport. (Though British viewers of a certain age would be excused for remembering that it did seem to only show one ‘sport’ — and here the quotes do double duty since the sport in question was wrestling.) Whereas Howard Cosell’s US gig was ‘Wide World of Sports’.

And here’s another. The stuff that the Lego company makes, seems to be commonly referred to in American English as ‘Legos’. In Britain — you’re ahead of me now — it’s just ‘Lego’. If the stuff is ‘Legos’, what would one Lego be? One of the bricks, I suppose. In Britain a Lego brick is just a Lego brick.

See? Egg. Eggs. Sport. Sports. Lego. Legos. What’s going on here? How did this come about?

If there is genuinely a preference for count nouns in US English, it might go somewhere towards explaining the bizarre reverse engineering of the singular word ‘kudo’, from ‘kudos’. ‘Kudos’ certainly superficially looks like it’s a plural, even though it isn’t. Legos, kudos. And if it’s a plural, then there must be a singular, right? Many kudos. One kudo.


  • In the US we are in the process of treating count nouns as if they were mass nouns. So now we have “less calories” and supermarket checkouts for “10 items or less” and the one that sounds the worst to me: “an amount of people.” I understand about language change, but I really don’t like hearing about amounts of people.

  • Janice: I’m not sure if using ‘less’ rather than ‘fewer’ is a count/mass thing. For a start, it’s prevalent in Britain too – though at least Marks & Spencer gets it right at the checkout. It might be more to do with a parsimony of language. Why have one word for count nouns and another for mass nouns, when one can (kinda sorta) work for both? And since ‘less’ is used in more contexts than ‘fewer’, that might be the one that prevails.

    It might be the same thing with the conflation of ‘flout’ and ‘flaunt’. Even though their meanings are totally different, they sound very similar, so the intended meaning is mostly carried in both situations by the same word, ‘flaunt’.

    Whether there’s anything in that speculation or not, I get all grouchy when language change removes a perfectly good word (and therefore a useful concept) from the language.

  • I really think the less/fewer issue is a mass/count issue, tho I am willing to concede it’s not unique to the US and that it’s a because of simplification. I’ve watched this one change and (geek that I am) have spoken about it with older people who grind their teeth when they hear it. Well, ok, I grind my teeth, too. There’s even a joke about the supermarket lines in Massachusetts that get it right. I think it’s simply a fact that the rule is changing and it’s changing in favor of mass nouns. In some cases, some of us now treat count nouns as mass nouns, chiefly when it comes to less/fewer and amount/number.
    Want to talk about “pants”? I’ve heard salespeople say “Here’s a nice pant to try on.”

  • While you’re being all pedantic-like, do you realise you gratuitously split an infinitive in that entry?

  • Janice: What are you, some kind of English professor?
    > Want to talk about “pants”? I’ve heard salespeople say “Here’s a nice pant to try on.”
    Or even ‘knicker’. Ahem.

  • Paul: Yes. The question is “what kind?”
    And I knew you’d take the pants-knickers bait 🙂 Sometimes you’re so easy. You’re going to get a reputation.

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