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Ask a lexicographer

Every now and again, we like to share a few of the very interesting questions sent to us by fans of Oxford Dictionaries. Read on to see how our experts tackle texting, the Bible, and one very difficult name.

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Answer: For nouns ending in ‘s’ you would add ‘es’ to make them plural. Initialisms, such as your example SMS, pretty much follow the pattern of only adding an ‘s’. New Hart’s Rules states:

Note, however, that the rule says most. While SMSs is a correct plural form, you do see examples of SMSes as a variant (in fact, the Oxford English Corpus notes 148 instances of ‘es’). It might be that this abbreviation is still fairly new and its plural formation hasn’t yet become firmly established in people’s minds. Oxford Dictionaries would therefore allow for both spellings.

A grounded definition

Question: I was checking my usage of ‘to ground’—in the sense of ‘to substantiate an argument, thoroughly’—and I notice that ground (verb) is in the same entry as ground (noun). Why does the verb form of ground not have its own entry?

Answer: Related areas of speech which have the same etymology are often grouped within the same entry in Oxford Dictionaries Online, which is why you find the verb form of ‘ground’ further down the entry for ‘ground1 (the solid surface of the earth)’.

The meaning to which you’re referring is verb 3, ‘(usually be grounded in) give (something abstract) a firm theoretical or practical basis’. Here are some example sentences:

  • The brilliant synthesis was grounded in his own practical experience.
  • The music is soulful while being grounded in the aesthetic and working practices of jazz.
  • Like most approaches grounded in irrationality, this one hasn’t worked either.

Say my name

Answer: The primary IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) pronunciation would be ˈaləstə, but ˈaləstɛː is also a valid alternative. Keep in mind, though, that the name can be spelled more than one way. It’s more likely that people would pronounce the spelling ALISTER as ˈaləstə; however, the spelling ALISTAIR would also commonly be pronounced ˈaləstə, though many people would also say ˈaləstɛː (because of the –stair ending).

Also note that these are British English pronunciations of ALISTAIR and that other regional pronunciations of English do differ. For example, this chart from the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation provides a handy breakdown of IPA pronunciation for British English and American English:

Help me(et)!

 

Answer: You should find the definition at helpmate useful in your investigations:

helpmate Pronunciation: /ˈhɛlpmeɪt/
(also helpmeet)
Definition of helpmate
noun

a helpful companion or partner, especially one’s husband or wife: she acted as his pleasant but by no means uncritical helpmate

Origin: late 17th century (as helpmeet): from an erroneous reading of Gen. 2:18, 20, where Adam’s future wife is described as ‘an help meet for him’ (i.e. a suitable helper for him). The variant helpmate came into use in the early 18th century.

The definition not only explains the development of the term help meet, but also makes mention of the ‘an’ indefinite article. Many words beginning with ‘h’ were pronounced as if the ‘h’ were silent until relatively recently. These include many words of French origin, including ‘hospital’. For these, ‘an’ was the appropriate indefinite article.

Take a look at our Better Writing page A historic event or an historic event? to learn more about articles that precede words beginning with the letter H.

Two of one

Answer: It’s down to the etymology of the word. It is ultimately from the Latin individuus, where in = ‘not’, dividuus = ‘divisible’, rather than from indivi-dual.

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