Saturday, October 31, 2009

this/these premises

I was in London yesterday, and blew some money on a black cab, since a cancel(l)ed train had made me late. While paused at a stop light, I read a notice outside a (BrE) railway station/(orig. AmE) train station that said something like "This premises closed for necessary maintenance", which left me wondering: whoever says this premises instead of these premises? When one encounters unfamiliar forms or usages in a dialect other than one's own, one naturally suspects that one overuses the impersonal pronoun that the form is native to the other dialect and not one's own. My methodology for discovering whether this is true: search for the phrase on the web, then search for the phrase only on UK sites on the web. If one of the forms has a UK proportion that is out of line with the alternative form, then assume that form is BrE. So, for instance:
59% of the global instances of (BrE) climbing frame are from UK sites
whereas only about 1 in 27 global instances of jungle gym are UKish

1 in 40 instances of mashed potatoes are from UK sites
but 1 in 3 instances of mashed potato are from UK sites

So...is it a British thing to ignore the plural marking on premises?
23% of the world's this premises are on UK sites
24% of the world's these premises are on UK sites
This premises accounts for about 11% of the total this/these premises in the UK.
It looks like the British use the singular version to some extent, but probably were not the originators of it, or else we'd probably see them having a greater proportion of the world hits.

I also compared .ac.uk sites versus .edu sites as a way of comparing UK and US that avoids the trap of the international .com.
About 3% of this/these premises on .ac.uk sites were this premises.
About 1.5% of this/these premises on .edu sites were this premises.
So, it does not seem to be a feature of 'educated' language, but it's more common in BrE academic circles than AmE ones.

So whose form is it? My money was on Australian English, which gives us this window dressing:


(click photo for source)

Comparing world hits to .au hits gives us:
1 in 19 these premises is Australian
1 in 4 this premises is Australian
Australians write this premises 37% of the time.
And, consistent with these findings, Australians are fairly happy to write the premises is (40%) rather than the premises are.

(Feel free to repeat the exercise with New Zealand and South Africa to see if it is general antipodean English--I'm coming down with a severe case of Googler's neck.)

But then I was re-reading Arnold Zwicky's post from last month about this premises (looking at why it is that something with an apparent plural suffix would be treated as a singular), I noticed mollymooly's comment (hello!): 'Irish law treats “premises” as singular, e.g. “any premises or any part of a premises” in S.60(2)b of the Insurance Act'. And, whoa, look at this:
Irish English uses the premises is and this premises nearly twice as often as the premises are and these premises.
16% (1 in 6) of the this premises on the web are Irish.
1 in 75 of the these premises on the web are Irish.
Which is to say that you only had to read all that about Australian English because I wrote it before reading M's comment. And, to be honest, I'm fairly surprised to find it so close to England, but so far as well. Did the Australians get it from the Irish, or is it arising separately there? Are the proportions in Scotland different from those in England? Those are questions I'm not prepared to answer.

(God knows, someone new to the blog is going to want to mention math(s) in the comments. Don't do that. Click here instead.)

Oh, and by the way, BOO!

36 comments:

mollymooly said...

hello!

mollymooly said...

This may be a wider Hiberno-English phenomenon; I've read "a trousers" in Flann O'Brien.

Or it may relate to "premises"="pub". Cue Flann O'Brien quote about "arguing from licensed premises".

Zachary said...

I would use this premises' if it was only referring to one place (eg. only that particular train station was closing down). If it was referring to multiple places then I would use 'these premises'.

I thought this was a common thing and didn't realise some people used 'these premises' all the time. I thought it was a simple plural rule.

John Cowan said...

Mollymooly: Alas, the English had the joke ahead of us this time. Sydney Smith said, of two quarrelling publicans, that "they would never agree, for they were arguing from different premis(s)es".

Anonymous said...

Definitely, definitely, definitely, only "these premises" BrE. If I saw this premises on a station notice, I would assume illiteracy (but now I would assume an Irish or Australian writer).

John Cowan, you've stolen my thunder. But I think it works better in the form I have heard it, with someone famous (variously Dr Johnson, or some Oxbridge academic) walking down the street and observing two women shouting at one another from their respective houses.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Until I read further down that "this premises" was Australian and/or Irish, I (BrE) would have classified it along with a greengrocer's apostrophe, as an error. Interesting to know that it is correct in other dialects of English!

townmouse said...

Hmm. 'on this premises' does sound illiterate at first glance (BrE), but then 'on the premises' (as in 'no smoking on the premises') doesn't, and 'on this premise', unless referring to logical terms, sounds completely wrong. Maybe because legally 'premises' in England are considered to be a collection of things (buildings, outbuildings, grounds) that, like trousers, can have no singular? I shall listen out for what the Scots say.

Anonymous said...

If Wikipedia is right about the origin of premises, ie it comes from standard wording in the recitals of contracts for the sale of land, where the phrase "in the premises" (meaning something like "in light of what has just been said") is used, then it cannot logically be used in the singular.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premises

lynneguist said...

@townmouse: It's just not a completely logical thing, though. Premises does include all the buildings on a property, but chattel, furniture, and livestock all describe different kinds of multiple things without an -s.

Solo said...

I think I'd only ever say "the premises", not 'this' or 'these'.

But in my mental syntax I hear 'premisis' as singular and 'premises' as plural, if that makes sense.

hicks said...

As an AusE speaker I don't recall ever seeing "this premises". Though evidence suggests that I'm just blind/auto-correct/don't speak my own dialect. It still sounds wrong to me, but not malicious, just that it may be a common error. Like its/it's, etc.

Looking at the sign I could correct it two ways. Change this to these (and insert are) or insert an apostrophe to make premise's. Or am I alone in being able to use premise like that?

Jo said...

Yeah, I think it's just a common error since, as has already been said, 'on the premises' doesn't sound wrong.

Is it a generational thing as well as a geographical one? E.g Older speakers are still using 'fewer' and 'less' but younger speakers tend to drop 'fewer' as the mistake falls into common parlance.

I've never seen 'this' premises in the UK.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@ hicks - but if you insert an apostrophe, you are implying either that something belongs to the premise, or that a letter has been omitted, neither of which is true in this case! I think inserting an apostrophe really would be a grammatical error in any dialect of English!

I agree that "The premises" would avoid any complication... but if it was a case of "No smoking on", I think I'd prefer "these premises".

Anonymous said...

Mollymooly: There is a word in Irish treabhsar, which is a singular noun, and of course Flann would have been well aware of this.

The word appears to have been borrowed into English, according to this online etymological dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=trousers&searchmode=none

Ginger Yellow said...

"I think I'd only ever say "the premises", not 'this' or 'these'."

Yeah, that's my reaction, too.

Incidentally, I live right near a restaurant called Premises. I should ask them if they think it's singular or plural.

mollymooly said...

The relevant sense in the OED (reviesed September 2009) is premise 3(b) which is marked "In pl[ural]", with a note "Now also occas[ionally] with sing[ular] concord." The only singular citation is "He'd knocked over every premises in Ballyglass at least three times." from 'Utterly Monkey' (2005) by Nick Laird from Cookstown, County Tyrone.

mollymooly said...

Other plural words now singular in Ireland are:
- bollocks, in the sense "scrotum" and by extension "dickhead";
- hames: originally a pair of hames was a horse-collar; now to "make a hames of" something is to make a mess of it.

John Cowan said...

And then there's news, which is nowsingular throughout the anglophone world, etymology ('new things') be damned.

hicks said...

Clarification: I could insert an apostrophe as a correction to make it "This premise is" but abbreviated.

Or is this a fledgling case of back-formation?

biochemist said...

In the UK one occasionally sees builders' notices: These premises are alarmed OR This door is alarmed (i.e. is wired up to an alrm system). It raises a wry smile ... I've never seen 'This premises'.

'Premise' in the sense of a point in an argument is a singular noun too - is it written 'premiss' in AmE? This would help with pronunciation as it's tempting to align it with 'surmise' or 'surprise'

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

@Hicks:
Its/it's is NOT a minor error!! It drives me insane, along with apostrophe abuse more generally. What harm has the poor bloody apostrophe ever done anyone to be treated so cruelly?

Incidentally, is it just me or have apostrophes been banned from British hospitals? Is this just a UK phenomenon?

that_woman said...

It certainly looks like an error,either someone less educated or someone who doesn't have BrE as a first language,it would be either 'the premises' or 'these premises' to most native speakers.

lynneguist said...

@biochemist: I've never seen premiss in AmE--just in BrE philosophical writings. In AmE (and I was a philosophy joint major in my undergraduate days) I only knew premise.

mollymooly said...

"jacks" for toilet is also current in Irish, but --like its archaic cognate "jakes"-- it was never plural: either "Jacques" nominative singular or "Jack's" genitive singular.

Matt said...

I have a question for the non-Americans. Does the phrase "on this premises" sound uneducated, as suggested by townmouse, or just plain bizarre? If I were to come across that phrase, I (an American) would just assume it to be a typo regardless of the educational level of the person who wrote it.

I am sure the linguists have a proper term, but this would be the difference between a non-standard usage (such as me an him went to the store) and a complete non-usage. Perhaps it's all the 's'ing at the end of premises that underscores the plural-ness of the word, and that makes the use of the singular sound so strange.

mollymooly said...

@Matt: I think the distinction you are looking for is between "non-standard grammar" and "non-grammaticality".

Everybody has some familiarity with non-standard grammars, at least at the level of comic stereotypes. But it's difficult to see how one can decide whether a bizarre-looking sequence is non-grammatical (ie a mistake), or some unknown non-standard grammar produced by someone speaking/writing the way they normally do. I suppose the more bizarre it seems, the more likely it is to be a mistake, but that's at best a rule of thumb. Clearly, a lot of people would (incorrectly) regard the Hiberno-English standard as a mistake.

In other news, I wonder whether there is any dialect variation in the use of "ground(s)" in the sense of "basis, cause, reason". Google gives approximately equal matches for "rejected on the grounds that" and "rejected on the ground that". The former is the only possible option when there are multiple reasons. The latter is logical when there is a single reason, but I think I would nevertheless use the plural in such situation. On the other hand, whereas "grounds" is undoubtedly plural for me --I would use "on these grounds"--, it seems to be singular for some --Google gives lots of hits for "on this grounds".

Solo said...

"this grounds"? Surely not! That's even odder than "On this ground."

The interwebs do harbo(u)r some bizzare attempts at the lingo indeed. So to speak.

May I take this opportunity to wish a slightly belated Happy Bonfire Night to our off-island cousins? Thank you. Happy Bonfire Night!

lynneguist said...

Does it make sense to wish people happy bonfire night when it's 364 nights till bonfire night? :P

Vicki Hollett said...

I love the search methods you've used here. Great tip! Thanks.

Chaa006 said...

May a first-timer offer an observation ? Would "While paused at a stop light," perhaps not have been more accurately cast as "While paused at a stop light (Am.E)/stopped at a red light (Br.E),"

Chaa006 said...

No, forget that: my mind was still under the influence of the American idiom. Far more idiomatic in <Br.E> would be "While I was waiting at the traffic lights".

lynneguist said...

@Chaa006: Thanks for that--it didn't sound quite BrE to me when I wrote it, but couldn't think of the alternative, so I looked up stop light in the OED, which didn't mark it as AmE, so I just stuck with it. Should've been a (BrE) full stop/(AmE) period in there somewhere...phew!

Miss Liss said...

AusE speaker here... so are you all saying that there is such a thing as a "premise" (in terms of a building)? I have not heard this usage before.

I would not think of the "s" ending making a plural, but rather that the word "premises" is just a word that ends in "s". Is it ever said, for example, "No smoking on this premise"? If the place in question is one building, does that make it a premise?

Hmm, I sound cranky in the above, but I'm really only rather bemused by the concept of "these premises" being correct, when referring to one premises. (See what I did there?)

lynneguist said...

English has lots of plural words without singulars--e.g. scissors, trousers, leftovers... These take plural demonstratives, pronouns and verbs. So, the AmE plural 'premises' is just another of those.

Iain Mac Eochagáin said...

In Ireland it's also very common to say "a scissors". We're often ridiculed for it by speakers of other dialects.

Neil Rashbrook said...

I agree we don't go in for stop lights here, but I'd suggest you were waiting for the lights to change, although stopped at a red light works for me too.