Tuesday, September 12, 2006

die and dice

While I read every newspaper that comes into my house from cover to cover (with the exception of the sport(s) section, which I hie to the recycling while wrinkling my nose), I'm not particularly careful about reading them when they are actually news. So I was just reading the 'Comment' section of the Guardian from 26 August 2006 when I came across this line by Johnjoe McFadden (Irish born, but raised in "the UK" according to his bio):
In Luke Rhinehart's novel The Dice Man, the eponymous hero makes all his decisions by rolling a dice.
I can hear any one of my schoolteachers responding to that sentence with "You mean a die. Dice is the plural of die."

Not necessarily, dear teachers.

Die is certainly the preferred singular in AmE, but in BrE one is likely to see dice as both the singular and the plural, even in edited texts like newspapers. A90Six comments on the forum at wordreference.com:
Many people in the UK would not even be aware that die is the singular of dice. Some even believe that when die is written in games instructions it is a typo with a missing c....
The only time die is really heard is in the expression, "The die is cast," meaning - something has been done or a decision has been made that will now have to run its course and fate will decide the outcome.
Better Half disagrees, and says that in his English mind it should be a die and not a dice in the newspaper, but some of my linguistic colleagues have in the past chided me for using die. More evidence that BH spends too much time with Americans? What do you say?

The history is a bit convoluted--but both forms have been used in the singular since the 14th century.

32 comments:

pj said...

I (BrE, spending virtually no time apart from televisually with Americans) agree with Better Half - 'a dice' sounds very wrong to me (and reads wronger still), but I know that a lot of people use it. I would always use 'a die', but not without a certain flicker of self-consciousness at my 'correctness' and apprehension of exciting comment if in unknown company... It's a no-win situation :o)
It's not that surprising that 'die' is unfamiliar to many people because it's comparatively infrequent to refer to the things in the singular, and the verb 'to dice' is surely much more common than the noun (one of the rare things we do with both death and vegetables).
For what it's worth, when I as a child first heard the saying 'the die is cast' I thought it was 'dye' and meant something like 'the dye has taken', 'the colour is fixed', 'your trousers are going to be bright pink now and there's no going back'. (Then I learnt Latin and the less colourful but more historically interesting truth that it comes from Caesar's reported comment as he crossed the Rubicon to trigger the Roman civil war.)

KathyF said...

Why don't we call mice "mie"?

lynneguist said...

BH thanks you for your support, pj.

The short answer for Kathy is that mouse is a Germanic word (coming from Old English and its ancestors) that was subject to plurali{s/z}ation by umlaut (the source of many of English's irregular plurals) and dice comes to us from Old French and dés. The question is why that came to be die and dice not dies, which has to do with the facts that (a) the French plural form was already being used as a singular in English so the 's' was not perceived as the plural '-s' and so it was spelled otherwise, and (b) the word was subjected to various sound changes. See the OED for more info if you need it...

David Malone said...

I think that people who have no involvement in board/role playing games would generally use dice for singular and plural in my part of the world. I'm fairly certain that only people trying to be pedantic would bother correcting a singular "dice" in spoken usage.

Shelly said...

I always assumed that "the die is cast" referred to die casting (a form of metal casting).

lynneguist said...

But in that case, the die does the casting, rather than being cast...

Darth Spacey said...

The original "the die is cast" is said to have come from Julius Ceasar, on (literally and figuratively) crossing the Rubicon. The "die" is the (according to the AHD, now obsolete in both the UK and USA) singular form of "dice", and "cast" refers to that dice having been thrown. "A chance has been taken, and the result will be irreversable" is the full meaning, but mostly people just mean the "the result is irreversable" part.

lynneguist said...

Which edition of the AHD do you have? It doesn't say this in the on-line version (not at the office today with my hard copy) and it's certainly not true. Obsolete is a very strong word!

lynneguist said...

Just checked AHD 4th edn in print, and nowhere does it say that die is obsolete. In fact, it doesn't even offer dice as a singular referring to the gaming cube (though it does offer it for a diced piece of food). So, according to AHD die is the singular of dice and that's that.

Darth, did you not mean the American Heritage Dictionary when you wroteAHD?

Lady Bracknell said...

Would Ms Guist care to comment on the derivation of the phrase, "as straight as a die"?

Is this related to gaming, or are its antecedents elsewhere?

lynneguist said...

That's the cutting kind of die. See here for more.

Lady Bracknell said...

Ms Guist is most kind.

ally said...

It's always been 'a dice' in my (british) family. I thought about taking up 'die' when I became aware of it as a kid but decided (wrongly, obviously) that it was probably based on the same type of error i'd made as a little kid (and been told of so many times that i can't now tell if it's amusing or not; if not - sorry!): Apparently, my Mum was getting some flowers in from the garden and said something about fetching a vase to put them in. Showing myself as a pedant even at aged 3(ish), i told her, 'No, just one va'. Oh dear.

lynneguist said...

This adds to the evidence that linguists are born, not made!

kurwamac said...

As Ambrose Bierce said:
A cube of cheese no bigger than a die
May bait the trap to catch a nibbling mie.

Aidhoss said...

This sent me to my ipod to check with Bob Dylan. I'm sure I remember the lyrics of 'The times, they are a-changin' as 'the line it is drawn/the dice it is cast'.
Alas! It is 'the curse it is cast', whoever heard of casting a curse anyway?

What's the concensus on 'data'? I vote for mass noun.

lynneguist said...

I treat data as a plural whenever I can. Just to make it feel more important.

Casting a curse, I would think, is like casting a spell. Over 31,000 google hits for casting a curse and nearly 10,000 for cast a curse.

John Cowan said...

The full Bierce entry combines all of these confusions into a single compact source:

DIE, n.

The singular of "dice." We seldom hear the word, because there is a prohibitory proverb, "Never say die." At long intervals, however, some one says: "The die is cast," which is not true, for it is cut. The word is found in an immortal couplet by that eminent poet and domestic economist, Senator Depew:

A cube of cheese no larger than a die / May bait the trap to catch a nibbling mie.

--The Devil's Dictionary

Anonymous said...

I'm an American ex-pat living in Oz now, and have just recently joined a role-playing organisation here. We are all much more comfortable with the singular die. I've been enjoying reading this blog for months now, but I must admit I'm afeared of not having enough schooling to post a comment.

lynneguist said...

No schooling necessary for commenting. You just need to speak a language!

Anonymous said...

I first discovered that "die" is the singular of "dice" when I studied probability theory at university. Using "dice" as a singular noun just sounds so wrong. People who study probability theory typically go on to become statisticians and then learn that "datum" is the singular to "data." But even fewer people know this and often use "data" for both singular and plural and it
has become common usage (at least in the US).

James said...

Just a thought, but from what I can remember, Rhinehart's character in The Dice Man uses two dice to make his decisions for most of the book.

Okay, so the commenter in the Grauniad wrote 'rolling a dice' not 'rolling dice', but I thought it worth mentioning.

Apologies for commenting on such an old post. I've only recently discovered the site and I've been traipsing through the archives during this last week to soothe the pedantic monster that slumbers within.

Keep up the good work.

J

LCDR Dennis said...

Hi! I came across this great explanation when I joked with My Own BH that the plural of lie must then be lice. (She was not amused.)
So, are there any other plurals that take the "-ce" ending? Except for leading me here, El Goog has been unhelpful.

John Cowan said...

It's been said that the plural of spouse is spice, though I suspect the experience of actual polygamists doesn't really bear this out.

claire said...

I'd never heard of "die" until I played a game with American friends as a child... but then some very proper English gentleman with good (BrE!) public school educations assured me it was "die", so I'm not sure!

ella said...

I grew up using 'die' as the singular for 'dice' (speaking a mish-mash of BrE and CanE). But for 'the die is cast' I always thought that the 'die' in question was the metal kind one uses to cut things, so if the die is cast (in metal) one can't change the shape of what it's going to make...I suppose I must have been mistaken.

Code crumbs said...

One thing that strikes me in the sentence you quote, more than the die-versus-dice issue, is the troubling use of "eponymous". Since the main character in The Dice Man is called Luke Rhinehart, how can he be called eponymous in any way?

Anonymous said...

I spent a substantial part of my life as a die
-sinker ( in England may I add ). And, somewhat confusingly, always produced a pair of dies! .... BR.

Albert Welch said...

I'm not entirely familiar with "hie" so I looked it up to clarify, and your use of it ("...which I hie to the recycling while wrinkling my nose") seems to be missing a preposition.

Based on the sources I looked at I would only use hie in that fashion in reference to an animal or possibly to machine I wished to personify.

I do find interesting the similarity in meaning and sound of hie and hightail, given they have entirely different origins.


P.S. Wrinkling your nose in disgust? That seems a bit harsh, unless some athletic star was captured in illicit debauchery.

SimonEllberger said...

Oddly enough, I've recently seen several instances of the phrase "the die were cast." I.e., instead of dice being used in the singular, die is being used in the plural! The most recent example of this is in the very new book "The Godless" by Ben Peek. After seeing it there, I did a search on the internet and found several other examples of this usage.

VDorr said...

Since we seem short on Americans here, I'll chime in to note that everyone I've gamed with here cringes and mutters each and every single time we read "roll a dice" in an English rulebook. Being wrong for over 600 years doesn't make you less wrong! Colonists are supposed to be the ones breaking the language. I've never heard an American use "dice" as singular.

David Crosbie said...

I'm amazed to read that some British speakers say die. I don't remember ever hearing the it spoken by a Brit — except when discussing the word as opposed to the thing.

Yes, we say The die is cast, but how many of us realise that it refers to dice? I had no idea until I learnt as a schoolboy about Caesar's words in Latin, and the way they are translated into English. A odd translation, since we never speak of casting dice. And an odd metaphor for our culture, since we don't think of a throw as irreversible. The way we use dice in games it would just never occur to us to say 'Can I have that throw again?'.

And surely dice is a collective — a bit like cattle — rather than a plural. It's a total violation of the way English plurals sound. If the final sound of the singular form is a vowel, then the plural form must end in a Z-sound.