Here’s another passage I’ve been forgetting to post.

Recently (15 March 2005) on Jeopardy, a contestant failed to move on in the Ultimate Tournament of Champions (whose pinnacle will be a chance for two 5-time champions to compete against Ken Jennings) because of an answer judged incorrect in Final Jeopardy. I forget the details of the clue, but it was a quotation by Vincent Van Gogh (unnamed in the clue) about one of his paintings. The answer is supposed to be “What is Starry Night?”, but the contestant pluralized night. So “What is Starry Nights?” was wrong, and the guy’s wager would have been enough to move him on to the next round, had he used a singular.

I found it interesting that the unwelcome [s] in the answer ? a single character in the written form ? was enough to tip it into the category of “wrong”, when clearly the contestant knew exactly which painting he was talking about. But I know (I just don’t have explicit evidence) that misspellings have been tolerated in the past on the show. Which led me to wonder, what if a contestant provided, say, a Latin legal term in classical pronunciation rather than church Latin? Another recent show actually had a Latin legal terms category, which I nailed as I watched. One answer was “What is habeas corpus”, and I said [hab馡mp;#601;s korpəs], in semi-anglo Classical pronunciation, but the contestant got it right by saying [h颩əs korpəs]. What if the answer was a French borrowing, but I gave it with a reduced final consonant cluster (like, say, Les Miserab)? Are there other cases in which plural/singular vacillation would have been tolerable or acceptable? A daunting (and potentially useless) exercise would be to compile the entire corpus of “wrong” answers from all of modern Jeopardy, in pursuit of exactly these questions.

Update. Lisa Davidson writes to inform me of having seen an explicit statement of policy on the show:

I recently heard Alex Trebek say that if someone gave a slight “misanswer” that changed the meaning of the answer, then it wouldn’t be accepted. If the pronunciation could not be interpreted any other way than the right answer, it would be tolerated. So if someone said “lay mizerab” vs. “lay mizerables”, it would probably be accepted either way. … But the “night” vs. “nights” is a Jeopardy no-no.

I’m sure they have a number of policies in place to determine acceptability of marginal answers, like when it’s necessary or not to include a first name, or the number with a monarch’s name. Indeed, they’re pretty good about reversing decisions during taping. But the idea that including /s/ is enough to ‘change the meaning’ of an answer is enough to make a semanticist X such that X is a semanticist and X is bemused. Like, how do they know the /s/ isn’t nickname /s/, eh, Trebs?

The same evening, a Seinfeld rerun revives an observation I’ve kept to myself until now, about the same little plural marker. An old-school claim about compounds is that regular plurals cannot be placed on the non-head element (which in English is the initial one). The whole *rats-eater thing. But sports teams provide a whole domain of exceptions to this:

… Taunts and insults flowed as heavily as the alcohol, they said, but they
never expected a Patriots victory would lead to a pummeling. …

… in Week 8. With the New York loss and a Patriots’ victory earlier in the
day, New England won its division crown. Chad Pennington …

… Football Brownies Recipe Celebrate a Patriots victory with these yummy looking Fast
and Fabulous Football Brownies from the Do It Yourself Network. …

… With the football season now over (not before I made another successful prediction
of a Patriots victory, with the Eugene Wilson injury as a bonus), all that …

The apostrophe in the second example belies a confound here, which is that it is tough to be certain that the [s] here is a plural and not a possessive. But maybe victory is a bad compound head for this: think instead of Patriots hat, Patriots jersey, Patriots helmet, Patriots mug, etc. You get the picture. And you can go on and substitute any plural team name for Patriots: Dodgers hat, Leafs jersey, Eagles helmet, Bulls mug, and so on.

Anyway, when it comes to games, it has always been natural for me to say “Patriots game”, “Senators game”, and so on. As in, “Where can we watch the Patriots game?” Unfortunately, to support this, a Google query on any search term of the form team[s]-game is difficult to interpret, since it turns up irrelevant examples not related to actual sports matches.

What does Seinfeld have to do with this? In numerous episodes, one or more characters discusses a game involving one of New York’s professional teams. But there is a clear tendency to use the singular of the team name in such contexts. Here’s an example from “The Serenity Now”:

Elaine: (Laughing) That’s funny. Hey, listen, what are you doin’ Saturday night?

Jerry: Not goin’ to the Knick game.

Elaine: I need someone to go with me to Mr. Lippman’s son’s Bar Mitzvah.

There it is, “Knick game”, with a singular non-head Knick. This exact phrase appears in 4 episodes: The Serenity Now, Male Unbonding, The Virgin, and The Limo. The phrase “Knicks game” appears in none. And this is widespread: there are also examples of “Ranger game”, “Giant game”, and “Yankee game”, but the plural versions are missing (except a single “Giants game”, in The Masseuse). However, the opposite pattern holds for the Mets; it may be that the plural form is used to distinguish the Mets from the Met.

Here’s a crude histogram, counting all tokens (note: the Islanders, Nets, and Jets are missing from the entire Seinfeld universe):

team sg + “game” pl + “game”
Knicks 5 0
Rangers 1
(The Face Painter)
Yankees 3
(The Letter,
The Engagement,
The Chaperone)
Giants 1
(The Masseuse)
(The Masseuse)
Mets 0 2
(The Seinfeld Chronicles,
The Puerto Rican Day)

There’s more. If you broaden the search terms, other combinations show up too. As the examples below illustrate, the singular-non-head arises in other compounds, except where the opponent is mentioned (e.g., “Mets-Phillies”).

Knick tickets
Ranger fan
Yankee dugout
Knicks-Bulls game (3)
Knicks home-opener
Rangers-Devils game

I got “Yankee dugout” from a script that already had “Yankee game” in it. Now I’m not about to search for all instances of “Yankee”, because the word shows up in 31 episodes, but a quick look shows a few more collocations:

The Strike: … TIM: (Accepting) Oh. (Turns to George) Hey, George, thanks again for getting me those Yankee tickets. GEORGE: Oh, yeah. … GEORGE: I got him Yankee’s tickets! …

The Mom and Pop Store: … GEORGE: How would you find out something like that…wait a minute, what am I thinking? I’ve got the entire Yankee organization at my disposal. …

The Visa: … A brouhaha breaks out between the guys in the camp, you know, and the old Yankee players, and as I’m trying to get Moose Skowron off of one of my teammates …

One other example I remember is from an episode in which some of the gang gets to sit in the Yankee’s guest seating area during a game against the Orioles. Elaine (as I would have done had I been from Baltimore) comes wearing an Orioles hat (and it is referred to as such in the script, with the [s] there).

… better take off that Orioles cap. ELAINE: (thinking he’s joking) Yeah. I better! …
you wore an Orioles cap. ELAINE: Well maybe you should ask him! …

You may disagree, but I find many of the singular non-head elements to be pretty awkward. Where did they come from? Did some script writer once take a linguistics course in which the decsriptive claim was advanced that non-heads can never take regular plurals, only to extend it (badly) into team-name compounds?