Angels dancing on a pin

I belong to a LinkedIn discussion group called LinkEds & Writers. Topics range from writer’s block to prickly clients to (a soft spot of mine) syntactical hair-splitting.

A few days ago, a member of the group asked a question about a point of grammar that was apparently causing some friction between her and her editor: “Which is correct: 200 varieties of apple trees or 200 varieties of apple tree?”

An early respondent had me nodding when she wrote: “Tree is better than trees. You’ve already communicated the plural in varieties, so the second plural is redundant.” But then another poster came up with this: “Say ‘a variety of child is in the garden’ or ‘a variety of children are in the garden’ aloud. The ear instantly recognizes the correct answer. Plural form.” Can’t argue with that, I thought. On the other hand… it’s a different usage of variety, isn’t it? 

Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, I kept coming up with new on-the-other-hands. So did the 75 other people who posted. Last I checked, the question still hasn’t been settled.

We have a deposed president in Egypt, nuclear tensions in North Korea, and economic instability throughout the world, and yet a bunch of us are pouring our passion into a single letter S. As one poster put it, “I love beingImage a member of the hair-splittin’est group on LinkedIn!”

What makes that S, or its absence, important? For us Homo Pedanticus members, the answer to that question amounts to understanding ourselves. I’d like to think we care about such things because of lofty ideals such as Truth, Beauty and Goodness. A more likely explanation is that we feel hugely impotent to solve the world’s big problems, like disease and detonating bombs, so we turn our angst on a letter.

ImageOr maybe we just have too much time on our hands and need to plow a field or two. There’s nothing like breaking a sweat to put pluralization in perspective. Failing that, there’s always the Gordian knot approach. As one poster, evidently frustrated with the discussion, proposed: “Just rewrite the damn thing: Wow! Look at all those apple trees!”

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10 Responses to Angels dancing on a pin

  1. Tara Smylie says:

    I believe the plural form is correct in this case. Poster number 1 is incorrect to say it is redundant. If the sentence were “200 apple tree(s) varieties,” it would be correct to omit the S due to issues of redundancy given that “apple tree” would function as an adjective, leaving “varieties,” the true noun of the sentence, to control the quantity in question. “Varieties of apple trees,” however, is correct; the phrase refers to many discrete forms of variety, each one selected from a base group of apple trees. The preposition “of” is a crucial part of the solution; it indicates origin as opposed to description.

  2. Leslie Frappier says:

    ““Just rewrite the damn thing: Wow! Look at all those apple trees!”
    See, if I was writing it that way, it would be Wow! Look at all them apple trees!
    Nice blog. Just my kind of place(s)

  3. E Shayne says:

    I liked this. BTW it’s trees, plural. lol

    Date: Fri, 5 Jul 2013 19:57:15 +0000 To: eshayne@hotmail.com

  4. 2keyboards says:

    Now that I’ve spent quite a lot of time worrying about “tree” versus “trees,” it can’t hurt to take another few minutes to tell you that I loved this post. And hey, I’m also a pianist/writer! Haven’t blogged in a while, but I’m at http://www.2keyboards.wordpress.com. -Heidi

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