Aubrey Shepherd's focal point for display of Labrador retrievers, natural-resource conservation, English language word use, outdoor sports, recreational sports and athletics

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Aubrey's Notebook:
Puppy swim

Fishing is in full swing, the lakes and rivers are covered by people swimming, riding skiis and tubes and boards towed behind boats and the summer heat has only recently arrived.

Already, however, many of us are thinking of the opening of the dove and teal seasons in September. That's why I took three 9-month-old Labrador retriever puppies to the White River southeast of Fayetteville to teach them to swim this week.

That's right. Labs must learn to swim. Admittedly, Aubunique Egg's Storm, Aubunique Hot Chocolate Egg and Aubunique Egg's Sadie Hawk learned in only a few minutes. But the job has to be done properly.

Their father, Bounty Grant's Aubunique, had shown them it was fun by soaking in a big tub in the back yard the day before. Then I waded into the river and tempted them to come in to chase a ball. Within minutes, they were competing to fetch the 12-inch softball from the current. They had been carrying softballs on land since they were only 4 months old, but the balls roll unpredictably in the water and watching the pups pursue them was entertaining.

Egg, being a bit past his prime, has gotten so he allows them to fetch in the yard without trying to race for the ball. And, from his reaction to ice water the past two duck seasons, I am convinced he'll gladly let them take over the duck-retrieving duty this fall.

The phrase "duck-retrieving duty" brings up another line of thought that was brought home to me in recent days as I got to watch a few baseball games on television and to read a few publications I usually miss.

The unnecessary pluralization of English nouns and adjectives is common among some of the announcers and even some of the writers in the sports-writing and broadcasting world.

Dictionaries, of course, don't tell us whether a change in the language is correct. They simply note that a particular deviation from established usage has occurred frequently enough to be intentional rather than inadvertent.

Only wide reading can teach a person that needless pluralization violates the English tradition of using only singular nouns as adjectives when there is no established adjectival form and when the use of the longer possessive form seems for some reason inappropriate.

Purists, of course, discourage any use of nouns as adjectives and insist on the use of adjectival forms rather than nouns whenever possible. Sports teams (Was it once sport teams? Check out old newspapers, magazines, books and early movies featuring sports before you answer) may have accounted for some of the confusion about the form that nouns used as adjectives ought to take. Most Arkansas residents are likely to speak of Razorback sports, although University of Arkansas athletic teams are called the Arkansas Razorbacks. About two years before the Arkansas Gazette ceased to publish ('99'), a young sports editor (shortened form of editor of the sport(s) or sporting section?) who had moved to the Gazette from an out-of-state paper issued an edict that it would forever after be Razorbacks player, Razorbacks record and Razorbacks Stadium (He had never seen the sign on the stadium).

Quickly, a long-time resident of the state explained to the young man that not only was using a plural noun as an adjective bad grammar but also in this case offended the ears of Razorback fans, few of whom likely would want to be known as a Razorbacks fan.

Some really old-fashioned readers would demand that the phrase be the Razorbacks' fans or, even better, fans of the Razorbacks. But, given the changes that already had occurred in traditional style and usage at the Gazette, just making it Razorback fans again was enough to slow change in one of the more important phrases in the popular vocabulary of Arkansas residents. A similar inconsistency may be noted in television talk about the Chicago Cubs. The late Harry Caray, a long-time WGN-Chicago television announcer, was heard saying Cub fans, while many other sportscasters referred to Cubs fans.

Most outdoor writers and editors of outdoor pages continue to use the adjectival form outdoor when describing material that originates outdoors.

But some who have never referred to a dictionary for guidance allow themselves incorrectly to be called outdoors writers or editors. The difference may be minor, but it is significant to people who remember when adjectives weren't plural and when relatively few nouns were routinely used as adjectives.

We'll know the pluralization of nouns used as adjectives is really out of hand when people start talking about squirrels season or ducks season or deers season. Already, some writers and broadcasters refer to catching crappies. Most people know that crappie and deer both serve as plural as well as singular forms. But only old-timers recall hearing the really old-timers mention killing '0 duck and '0 squirrel. Such quaintness won't return. But, in order to make what we write today understandable in the future, we must resist needless change. Otherwise, the common speech and writing of today will be quaint and hard to understand for people in a few decades.

Adding words to our language is inevitable. Accepting errors that allow the basic structure of the language to change is destructive.


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Aubrey James Shepherd
Fayetteville, AR © 2003, 2004, 2005

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