singular "small fry"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Dec 21 05:21:30 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".

Here's another, from today's NYT Magazine (Randy Cohen's "The Ethicist"):

While the rules [for NYC bus seating priority] seem to permit
free-riding small fry to take a seat on a local bus, ethics urges
them and everyone hale and hearty to offer that seat to any passenger
who, for whatever reason--age, infirmity, advanced pregnancy, sheer
weariness--genuinely needs it.

Assuming "them" is coindexed with "small fry" (and not, say, with
"the rules"), this is pretty clearly a plural "small fry".


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