Lab-in-a-word

labonachipOne of the many tiny things that nanotechnologists have developed is a laboratory so small that a mere sliver of silicon can accommodate it. I don’t know what to admire more: this feat of engineering on the littlest imaginable scale or the succinct and graphic name they’ve coined for it, lab-on-a-chip (with lab-on-chip as a fairly common alternative).

But while the word is excellent, the plural is somewhat problematic. Opinions – or perhaps I should say intuitions – are divided between several options, and they nearly all make sense.

My own grammar gut tells me that lab-on-(a-)chip is a case like sister-in-law, tug-of-war and secretary-general. Unusually for English nouns, their main elements (known as heads) come first, which is why their plurals are sisters-in-law, tugs-of-war and secretaries-general. That strongly suggests that labs-on-(a-)chip would be the way to go. At just over 50%, this indeed is the most common form that a Google search turns up.

But hot on its heels, at 46%, is the alternative lab-on-(a-)chips. This seems odd at first sight, but on reflection, it has two important things going for it. Continue reading

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From plural to singular, three times over

palmPlurals and singulars are not hewn in stone. Plurals, especially those of foreign extraction, are regularly mistaken for singulars, and – sometimes – vice versa.

The word stamina, for instance, was really the Latin plural of the word stamen (a term you may remember from biology class, albeit in a very different meaning), but has in English long been a singular. The same has happened with agenda and, more recently, data. It is happening under our eyes with phenomena. People get worked up about it, but there’s nothing new under the sun. Even the respectable opera was once a plural, and only became a singular because Italians couldn’t be bothered with Latin grammar – and why should they? Continue reading