Things That Keep Me Up At Night, Part I

I used to be an insomniac. From about age 12 until I became a regular exerciser at about age 25, sleeplessness was my unwelcome nighttime companion. I still suffered with bouts of it until last year, when I learned self-hypnosis (I know, I know . . . .but it totally worked!). Now, sleep is no problem.

Until last night. I wish I could say that contemplating the larger mysteries of the universe is what chases away dreamland, but my most recent episode shows that it is the larger mysteries of the English language that does it. And so, my six dear readers, if you are having trouble sleeping, this is a post that will, paradoxically, put you right in snoozeville.

So I’m lying there, thinking about a cute thing Madame Chaos said. As we were driving past the water tower, she gave me a glimpse into the desires of her heart as she said, “If we climb up the water tower, the firecracker chiefs will be mad at us.” Then the thought occurred to me: why is the plural of “chief”, “chiefs”, while the plural of “thief” is “thieves”? Then I thought of the other phonetic rhymes like leaf/leaves, sheaf/sheaves, and even the antiquated beef/beeves. But then I realized I should stick with the “ief” spelling, and thought of brief/briefs, belief/beliefs and grief/griefs (with the added interest of the related verb “to grieve”, which sidetracks me for a few minutes). And then I’m pretty sure “kerchief” can be pluralized both as “kerchiefs” and “kerchieves”. So, despite (or because of?) my years of teaching spelling rules and their inevitable exceptions, I find myself trying to come up with the rule for when a word ending with the phoneme /Ef/ changes to either /Efs/ or /Evz/. Then I start longing for my very own, unabriged copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to show me the evolution of each of those words so I can figure it out myself instead of looking it up online. Then I figure I should just get myself out of bed and look it up already so I can go back to sleep.

An hour or more later, I can’t find any rules specific to the /Ef/ phoneme, just the usual “a noun ending in an -f is usually pluralized with -ves.”

So this is my hard-won, sleep-depriving, self-made rule (are you asleep yet?): all the nouns ending in -ief are exceptions to the rule of plurals except for “thief,” which is an exception to this exception (and therefore keeps the rule), and “kerchief,” which can take either plural. Big sigh.

You’re welcome.



  1. Kelly said,

    April 9, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    That there was a lota bit over me head. I’m glad you got the Big Sigh I’m tired now, that was intense.

  2. Shannon said,

    April 9, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    You crack me up!

  3. strawberrygirl88 said,

    April 11, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Nikki, we are too alike! That is just the sort of thing that would also keep me up at night. I completely understand how you feel. The English language is full of countless mysteries. And I have to say I’m pretty proud of myself that thanks to my Linguistics and History of the English Language classes I know what you are talking about!

  4. idahospud said,

    April 12, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Hi ladies, nice to see you on here!

    Ali, I got a stab of envy when you mentioned Linguistics and History of the English Language–those along with my Dialectology class and Jane Austen class were my favorites in all my college years. I’d go back in an instant.

  5. strawberrygirl88 said,

    April 13, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Wow Nikki, you just had to prove you are STILL way smarter than me! I have no idea what Dialectology even is, but it sure does sound fun. Maybe fill me in?

  6. strawberrygirl88 said,

    April 13, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    and of course, i know you will always be smarter.

  7. idahospud said,

    April 13, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Ali, I wouldn’t want to be put up against you in a smarts contest. I’ve got 20 years of experience on you, though!

    Dialectology is studying how dialects develop. To me, it is utterly fascinating.

  8. Stacy said,

    April 15, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    VERY interesting indeed! I have never had trouble sleeping but it seems that if I did, thinking about this dialectical rule would put me to sleep pretty quick. But I do enjoy it when someone else goes to the trouble of figuring this stuff out. Finally, I would point out that you do seem to have more than six loyal readers – not bad for only blogging once a quarter! 😉

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