LINGUIST List 2.578

Fri 27 Sep 1991

Disc: Of Mice and Mouses

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  1. David E Newton, RE: 2.575 Mice and Mouses
  2. Stephen P Spackman, Re: 2.575 Mice and Mouses
  3. Jean Veronis, Re: Mice and Mouses
  4. Steve Pinker, Of Mice and Men

Message 1: RE: 2.575 Mice and Mouses

Date: Fri, 27 Sep 91 17:55 BST
From: David E Newton <>
Subject: RE: 2.575 Mice and Mouses
In my experience, I always use the plural "mouses" when referring to
pointing devices, and "mice" for rodents. As far as I was aware, this
was the semi-official (ie, widely-adopted) use of the terms. Maybe I
was wrong, since other writers have maintained that they have never heard
"mouses" in their own academic community. I had likened the pair (though
the correlation is not identical) to the "goose/geese" ^ "mongoose/mongooses"
example that most people know. That is to say, people who weren't au fait
with the mongoose might (accidentally) use "mongeese" and, similarly, those
who did not have regular contact with computing equipment might use "mice".
The comment from Bill Poser that the adoptation of the "-en" suffix for
various items in the computing world makes him doubt the "-s" plurals
of "mouses" seems to me to be flawed. If this was the case, surely the
usage of "mousen" would be seen. (Though I have to say that I have never
seen as wide usage of "-en" forms as he mentions.)
David E Newotn
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Message 2: Re: 2.575 Mice and Mouses

Date: Fri, 27 Sep 91 11:20:43 -0500
From: Stephen P Spackman <>
Subject: Re: 2.575 Mice and Mouses
Coming from anglophone Montreal (at least as far as technojargon is
concerned), I have:
	mouse	mice	(freeroving pointing inperiph)
	VAX	VAXen	(DEC mini)
	box	boxen	(_generic_ computer, NOT box, "case, chassis")
	Amiga	Amigae	(this may have been my own coinage, once)
	BIXer	BIXen	(holder of a BIX account)
and, yes,
	spouse	spice	(perhaps superseded by S.O., which doesn't
			 seem to HAVE a plural ("people"?), though SOx
			 ("esoks") suggests itself)
But:	Atari	Ataris
	Mac	Macs
Short words for things regarded with affection (thus ruling out Macs
in my CLIdriven crowd :-) seem to be the best candidates for innovated
irregular plurals.
Bill Poser reports Chipmunk/Chipmunken, Macintosh/Macintoshen,
BLIT/BLITzen. I haven't heard any of these, but I'd predict that
BLIT/BLITzen would catch on like wildfire, while the others would be
unacceptable (perhaps they are already too long?). But I'd go for
"Macintish"! (
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Message 3: Re: Mice and Mouses

Date: Fri, 27 Sep 1991 12:39 EST
Subject: Re: Mice and Mouses
The mice/mouse problem seems to indicate a difficulty of speakers to use
irregular plurals when they use words in a new sense. I have heard a student
explaining (in French) that his programs were generating "des fichiers
journals" (=journal files, instead of "journaux"). I wonder if this is the
historical reason why we have words with several plurals:
"ciel" (sky) -> "cieux" in general, but "ciels" in painting, to refer to the
sky in a painting
"travail" (work) -> "travaux" in general, but "travails" when it means a
particular tool for a horsesmith.
I wonder also if other languages have this type of phenomenon.
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Message 4: Of Mice and Men

Date: Fri, 27 Sep 91 13:30:58 EDT
From: Steve Pinker <>
Subject: Of Mice and Men
Ellen Contini-Morava writes:
|With respect to "mouses" (computer) vs. "mice" (rodent). Note that
|the plural of "walkman" is walkmans", not "walkmen". On the other
|hand, the plural of workman" is "workmen". The irregular plurals
|seems more closely tied to the original, literal meaning, whereas the
|newer, more metaphorical meaning allows the more productive plural.
This claim is common in the linguistics and psycholinguistics
literature, but it is not correct. Note:
 metrical feet/*foots,
 the teeth/*tooths of the saw,
 Freud's intellectual children/*childs,
 leaves/*leafs of the book', etc.
Among verbs, you find
 cut/*cutted a deal,
 blew/*blowed him off,
 the movie stank/*stinked,
 he caught/*catched a cold', etc.
There are literally hundreds of such counterexamples.
More quantitatively, Kim et al. (1991) elicted ratings of
regularizations of novel senses of irregular verbs, and independent
ratings of semantic centrality of the novel sense relative to the
original one. Semantic centrality had no unconfounded effect
The causal factor in regularization is not metaphoricity but
*headedness* of words in the sense of Williams and others, as was
first proposed by Kiparsky in pre-Lexical Phonology days. A derived
word is only irregular if it has an irregular head; if not, the
regular rule generally takes over as the default. Thus, instances of
regularization virtually always involve words that contain an
irregular root that does not serve as its head, that is, whose
semantic referent, syntactic category, and other features are not
inherited by the word as a whole. The reason that such words
regularize is that irregularity acts like just any other grammatical
feature, and percolates (or fails to percolate) from the root to the
whole word via the same pathway.
Examples thus include bahuvrihi compounds like 'walkmans, low-lifes,
still-lifes, Bigfoots', where the referent of the root is not the
referent of the compound (e.g., a low-life is not a kind of a life);
regularization-through-derivation examples like 'flied- out,
grandstanded, ringed the city with artillery', where the syntactic
category of the root (noun or adjective) differs from the whole word
(verb); nouns from names ('Toronto Maple Leafs, Renault Elfs, the
Mickey-Mouses in this administration'), and nouns from phrases. Many
headless derived forms also happen to be nonliteral, and this is what
led to the impression that metaphoricity triggers regularization, but
examples like 'chessmen' and 'caught a cold', and Kim et al.'s data,
show unambiguously that headlessness (exocentrism) is the causal
The 'computer mouse' case is unclear, beginning with the phenomenon
itself. Obviously there is widespread squeamishness about 'mice' but
apparently not enough to allow 'mouses' to dominate. 'Mouses' is rare
in speech, and in an survey of a thick catalogue of computer
mail-order ads, we found that 16 used the heading 'mice', none used
'mouses', and 6 copped out and used the singular 'mouse'. We suspect
that this case (and a family of related examples) is a different,
weaker phenomenon, whereby irregular plurals, since their
morphological idiosyncrasies force them to be stored in memory rather
than generated by rule, tend to have noncompositional semantic
representations, specific to the way in which that referent usually
comes in bunches, rather than compositions of the root-meaning with
generic plurality -- thus `mice' may well have a collecive sense that
e.g. `dogs' does not. A novel sense of an irregular noun that invites
a different flavor of plurality (collective, distributive, dual, etc.)
is liable to feel uncomfortable when used with the existing irregular
plural form; e.g., if 'mice' refers not just to "more than one mouse"
but to something connoting a swarm or infestation, it will clash
somewhat with pointing devices, which are encountered one at a time.
But there is no structural constraint blocking the irregularity, so
the phenomenon manifests itself more as minor discomfort than outright
ungrammaticality triggering regularization. For discussion of the
interaction of irregularity and plural subtype, see Peter Tiersma,
"Local Markedness," Language, 1980.
Finally, a warning about 'vaxen, bigna', and even `(computer) mice' as
linguistic data. Dreaming up witty analogical extensions of irregular
morphology is a lively genre of mirth, e.g., 'I got schrod at Legal
Seafood'; Richard Lederer's "Foxen in the Henhice" from Crazy English;
Maggie Sullivan's 'Nothing had subdone him like her violet ideas
subdid him', and so on. The humor, of course, lies exactly in the
leap away from grammar.
Steve Pinker
John J. Kim
Alan Prince
John J. Kim, Steven Pinker, Alan Prince, and Sandeep Prasada (1991).
``Why no mere mortal has ever flown out to center field,'' Cognitive
Science, 15, 173-218.
Steven Pinker, et al. ``Of mice and men,'' In preparation.
Edwin Williams (1981) ``On the notions `Lexically Related' and `Head
of a Word,' LI 12, 245-74.
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