chad is like fish...

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Nov 30 00:46:15 UTC 2000

douglas wilson:
 [quotation provided by lynne murphy:]
 >> >... Chad are
 >> > the tiny pieces of paper that pop out of a ballot when a voter
 >> > chooses a candidate.

 >AFAIK, this is a recent error. I've not seen any authoritative or
 >informed reference (pre-election) using "chad" as a true plural
 >(e.g., "two chad").

i don't have any pre-election citations either.  but i suspect that
this usage is, for some people, now their normal one (even if it
does diverge from earlier usages).  unmarked-plural "chad" can
easily arise from the very many situations in which "chad" could be
understood as either a (singular) mass noun *or* as an unmarked-plural
count noun: "The chad just seemed to pile up"; "We noticed a lot of
chad" etc.  and an unmarked-plural count noun is not such an odd
hypothesis, since a fair number of unmarked-plural count nouns have
marked-plural alternatives ("reindeer" and "reindeers", for instance),
so that someone who hears plural "chads" might well think it's just
a variant of plural "chad".

the point is people will hear idiolects with count CHAD only,
idiolects with mass CHAD only, and idiolects with both usages.  from
this input it is possible to come to an analysis of CHAD as an
unmarked-plural count noun.  (this requires not hearing some
counterexamples - like "Lots of chad is caught in the machine" - or
not appreciating their significance, or simply disregarding them on
the grounds that, after all, folks don't all talk the same.)  From
the point of view of the earlier usages, this usage is an "error",
in the sense that it's an innovation, but it's not necessarily a
slip of the tongue or a mangled form resulting from some hare-brained
consciously formulated hypothesis.

 >Actually, "chad" seems to resemble "hair": "one hair", "two hairs",
 >"a pile of hair".

i usually use E-MAIL/EMAIL as a parallel for CHAD used both as a
(marked-plural) count noun and as a mass noun.  so far as i know, if
you have count uses of CHAD, you also have mass uses, but not vice
versa.  but almost all english speakers have both a mass noun HAIR and
a count noun HAIR, period.  it's also true, i think, that the mass
and count E-MAIL and CHAD don't differ in their usage in any way
except their mass vs. count syntax, but that mass and count HAIR
differ in quite a number of ways - "head of hair/*hairs", "comb one's
hair/*hairs", etc.

 >Some poorly-informed (or misquoted?) 'experts' on the Web and in the
 >media recently have asserted that "chad" is like "sheep" ("one
 >sheep", "two sheep"): this seems to arise from a confusion between a
 >plural and a "mass noun".

indeed, explicit pronouncements have often been strikingly misguided,
for this very reason.  but i don't see any reason to assume that
unmarked-plural "chad" could arise only from such misguiding theorizing.

arnold (zwicky at

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