singular "small fry"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Dec 19 19:03:55 UTC 2008

At 9:42 AM -0800 12/19/08, Arnold Zwicky wrote:
>On Dec 19, 2008, at 8:52 AM, Alison Murie wrote:
>>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>Poster:       Alison Murie <sagehen7470 at ATT.NET>
>>Subject:      singular "small  fry"
>>Tom Engelhardt, writing about the collapse of the book market, says,
>>of one of its victims, "He was just a small fry"....... While this is
>>perfectly clear & reasonable, to me, "small fry" is an invariable mass
>>noun, like "scampi."
>this confusion appears again and again: mass vs. plural.  the usual
>use of "small fry" is *not* as a mass noun, but as a zero plural (of a
>count noun).  the OED cites for "small fry" show clearly plural
>syntax: "From the small fry that glide ...", "One of the small
>fry ...", "all other managers were small fry".  the OED has no clearly
>singular count uses, but you can google up plenty of them: a NYT
>headline "A Big Struggle Over a Small Fry", a t-shirt "Just a Small
>Fry", "As all those petite, wannabe-tall yet slow-to-grow youngsters
>know, life as a small fry can have its disadvantages", "As a small fry
>we offer custom product assemblies", and many more (plus references to
>french fries, as in "How many calories in a small fry from
>McDonalds?" , where the reference is to a small order of french fries).

For me, that last has to be "a small fries", but I suppose that must
crash some speakers' mental grammar check.


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