Was out with my friend the Blinder tonight, talking about my plan to re-establish a gym routine and improve my diet. (Let's see how long that lasts.) I need to make my plan as numbers-driven as possible, and need to involve Better Half in the process in order to discourage his practice of showing me how much he loves me by making me more food. (Today I was packed two lunches.) So, I said that we need a new scale, as the one we have now (which I've had since 1987--it's lived on three continents) measures in pounds, whereas BH understands weights better in stones. The Blinder said, "There's one for your blog," and I replied "I've already done it!" But guess what? I haven't! All this writing I do is just running together; I've written about scales in the lexical semantics textbook I'm writing. The exciting implication of all that is that I can basically cut-and-paste bits from that manuscript and call it an exciting preview of my forthcoming textbook. Recycling! It's good! The only problem here is that the bit that I'm cutting and pasting is part of a larger discussion of noun countability. You'll just have to buy the book to make sense of it all, won't you now? [I'll paste in links to the catalog(ue) entry when it's finally published. Here I am, four years later, adding that link.]

Historically, the name for a weighing device is scales. It is plural because scales had two clear parts in which one thing was weighed against another. So, they looked like this:

Modern scales don’t involve balancing things in two plates (photo from here):

(b)AmE has changed along with the scales, so that item (b) is usually called a bathroom scale, but scales is still used for the older kind. In BrE and AusE, however, it is still called scales, no matter whether it has two salient parts or not. When Anna Wierzbicka (Semantics: primes and universals) asked Australians why the word is plural, they answered that it was because there are lots of little numbers on the contraption. This seems to be a case of the word leading the thinking about an object. That is, because they say scales instead of scale, some people think about scales as being 'made up' of little numbers because they need to make sense of the fact that this singular object gets a plural name. Wierzbicka also notes that Australian English has shifted from speaking of a pair of scales, to a set of scales (for (b)). There, it looks like the name scales was broadened to cover (b) as well as (a), but when people started to think of numbers (of which there are many) rather than the plates on which measurable bits are put (which come in pairs in (a)-type scales) as the 'plural' part of scales, they shifted to thinking of scales as sets, rather than pairs.

Hm, aren't you just dying to take a lexical semantics course now? Or at least in the market for a textbook? Hey, maybe I can get you a discount...


  1. Pretty pleeease: place a link to anything you've written on math vs. maths.

  2. Are there any cases opposite to math(s) and scale(s) where the American version has the S besides sport(s)?

  3. Math(s) is a completely different kind of case, since the word is NOT PLURAL!! (Sorry if I'm yelling, but no matter how often it's said, it doesn't seem to get through.) It may have an S on the end, but note (* means ungrammatical):

    Mathematics is taught at school.

    *Mathematics are taught at school.

    (BrE) Maths is taught at school.

    *Maths are taught at school.

    If math(ematic)s were/was plural (and note that that were is subjunctive, not plural!), then it would be ungrammatical to say maths is. But it's not!

    OK, I do have to do a full post on this, just to put it in a searchable place. So please hold fire on this topic, and I promise I'll make it my next post. Then we can go to town on it.

    I've said the same thing before in the comments here, but it's not searchable because it's in the comments--which is why I want to make this its own post, since the requests for it are fairly constant...

  4. And sorry, flash and john, I wasn't meaning to yell at you! It's not that I've said this to you before and you didn't understand it--it's that it's such a fixed understanding in the culture that I run up against it all the time. So, I will try to calmly write my post on this, tonight or tomorrow. Hope you'll not have lost patience with me by then!

  5. From My computer's dictionary (Oxford American) 'mathematics' definition:

    • [often treated as pl. ] the mathematical aspects of something : the mathematics of general relativity.

    Would one say that the 'mathematics of GR' are or is xyz? I think I would use the former.

  6. Haven’t we got into a muddle mixing imperial and metric measurements? The BBC tries to force metrification upon us, but sometimes it will mix both in one sentence. Whilst most of us have got used to using metric for weight and shorter distances, we can only get a concept of speed or greater distances in miles per hour and miles. I find it particularly annoying when aircraft speed is quoted in kilometres per hour, whereas pilots and air traffic controllers still use” knots”(nautical miles per hour).

    Despite metrication being introduced in France over two centuries ago, half a kilo is still informally referred to as “un livre”.

  7. Going to the gym, eh? The writing's on the wall. Or the "handwriting" as you chaps seem to say.

  8. May be this Imperial- Metric (or Imperial/ SI, if you prefer) thing is about a different kind of exercise, that is mental arithmetic.

    I am comfortable with both systems but find myself doing the maths (BrE!) for the genius in my house often, as I report or rather broadcast (which is less specific as to whether someone is listening or not) my weight in stones/ pounds, or the distance I ran in miles.

    Constantly multiplying with 1.6 or dividing by 2.2 is a great way to teach young ones speed-maths. If all were doing this, we would not be in the state with maths that gives much cause to lament to our politicians and the media.

  9. Peter: it's "une livre" for weight, generally understood at 500 grams (just over one pound).

    And what's with "stone" anyway? Where did it come from? When I'm chatting with people on weight training forums, the British always give their weight in stones (or stones and pounds). Do they not realize that no one else in the world (I suppose) knows what they're talking about? And poor us who have to do the math (11 stone x 14 lbs = 154 lbs + 4 lbs = 158 lbs... ooof).

  10. I think stating one's weight in a measuring system that no one else understands is a marvelous idea! Even better is to use one in which the numbers don't mean a lot to yourself. I always feel thinner in kilograms, because while I have an academic knowledge of how much a kilogram weighs, I don't have natural instinct for how 'fat' a kilogram is.

  11. When I'm chatting with people on weight training forums, the British always give their weight in stones (or stones and pounds). Do they not realize that no one else in the world (I suppose) knows what they're talking about?

    Like us Brits and you Americans using pounds to the amusement of everyone else.

    One thing I'd suggest is that if you are dieting record weight loss in kgs and gains in pounds. That way you don't get satisfied too soon with the loss, and get alarmed immediately by the gai!

  12. Still working my way through your posts and comments after having recently discovered your fun blog.

    Re your comment above "Hey guy, I'm not a chap!" -- I have a female co-worker in her 20s here in the U.S. who says "Dude" to anyone, male or female. For example, she might say to another female co-worker, "Dude, thanks for helping me out with that!"

    I'm in my 40s and I don't say "Dude" to anyone, but I certainly wouldn't say it to a woman.

  13. BrE. I have been told that people relate most easily to numbers roughly in the range 0 to 100. Thus, if you need to talk about short time, milliseconds will often feel more convenient, than something like 0.003s. While this might expand the BrE preference for stones and pounds, weights up to 500 pounds would not challenge this “rule” too much. But to express the distance to the next junction as 5000 fr seems very strange to this Brit.

  14. Sorry, should be explain, not expand.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)