Keep the mice out of the cabbages
Last week, while standing in line at a local restaurant where an employee dishes out the food from a buffet, I overheard a customer order “cabbages” as one of their chosen sides.
That, of course, solicited an inner chuckle from yours truly, but it also put the wheels of my brain in motion about other singular/plural veggies we consume on a daily basis.
While I ordered cabbage myself that day, it’s a known fact that this particular veggie is a singular plant, but upon cooking you always use more than one. Hence, you do wind up with “cabbages.”
What about corn? A stalk contains multiple ears and each ear is loaded with kernels. But yet when served as a side dish with a meal, it’s simply known as corn.
Corn goes well when mixed with piping hot butterbeans. The latter grows inside an outer shell, which are broken open, or shelled. We certainly do not reference the pairing of those two veggies into one bowl as corns and butterbeans.
That does remind me of one of my all-time favorite stories. When my now late brother-in-law Rock Vinson was working in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he would often visit a mom-and-pop café for lunch. On his very first trip there, he noticed a dish on the menu – succotash. He asked the waitress what that was and was told it was sweet corn, lima beans, tomatoes and okra, all served in one bowl.
Rock, born and raised in Arkansas, smiled and said, “Back home we called that leftovers.”
Green beans are another tasty product from the garden. There, it’s a single, long green pod that is cut into short segments before cooking. Around my house, we always referred to them as snaps….I guess due to the sound a freshly picked green bean makes when it broken, using your fingers, into smaller pieces.
A potato is another veggie that becomes plural upon digging a crop from the ground. If we stick one in the oven and, 45 minutes or so later slightly break it open and add butter, cheese, sour cream and bacon bits, it’s a baked potato. However, if you peel a bagful of spuds, dice them up into small cubes, place them in boiling water, drain, add a splash of milk and some butter and mix until they as smooth as a baby’s bottom, then we have creamed potatoes (or in the south, mash taters).
But yet a squash, no matter how many you harvest from the garden, are still known as squash (not squashes) upon cooking.
All of the above examples are collective nouns. They have a singular form but can be followed by a singular or a plural verb, depending on whether we treat the group as a unit (singular) or as a number of individuals (plural).
Moving away from the garden, what about other examples of collective nouns?
If there is a swarm of bees, a pack of wolves, and a colony of ants, then why isn’t there a herd of cattles or a flock of sheeps?
If there is a team of researchers, then why not a group of peoples? Aren’t researchers people?
There are plural nouns that do not follow the normal rules.
More than one tooth is teeth. If you attended a certain school from where you graduated, you’re an alumnus. Upon joining a group of fellow grads, you are all known as alumni. The same can be said for a large creature that enjoys the water – one alone is a hippopotamus; two or more together are hippopotami.
That last entry does not apply to other creatures, such as deer or fish. They are singular and plural, no matter the number. Yet one small creature scurrying across your floor is a mouse. If you see more than one, then you have mice.
If for some reason you experience an invasion of those furry rodents inside your home, just remember to keep them out of your cabbages!
Cal Bryant is Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7207.