Update on Wayansgate 2009

Last week I posted an item that I thought would be entirely uncontroversial. It was simply a list of mistakes made by major North American newspapers in their reviews of the movie “Dance Flick.” The movie was made by several members of the Wayans family, which led to errors along these lines:

“The Wayans (should be Wayanses) keep making the same movie.”

“Like the Wayans’ (Wayanses’) last movie, this one is no good.”

“I hope this is the Wayans’s (Wayanses’) last movie.

“All those Wayans’ (Wayanses) should know better.”

As I said, I didn’t expect any controversy here. Plurals of last names are formed the same way as plurals of other nouns: by adding “s” or “es.” The only common exception is that last names ending in “y” don’t change to “ies” (e.g., baby/babies, but Murphy/Murphys). And once it’s pluralized, you show possession the same way: by adding an apostrophe. My boss, my many bosses, my many bosses’ offices. One Wayans, several Wayanses, the Wayanses’ latest movie.

Yet as soon as I posted it, there was dissent. Like so many Internet conversations, a lot of people who didn’t know anything about the subject wanted to talk about it anyway, presumably because they enjoy the clickety-clack sound their keyboards make when they type on them. But there were others who knew about things like “style manuals” who nonetheless insisted these newspapers’ mistakes were not mistakes at all.

This seemed CRAZY to me. The rules about forming plurals and plural possessives aren’t a “gray area” in grammar, nor do they differ from one style guide to the next. The rules are as cut and dried as “he” and “him” not being interchangeable because one is a subject pronoun and the other is an object pronoun. If you say “John sat next to Mary and I,” you are WRONG, period. It should be “Mary and me.” You’ll get the same answer in any grammar guide you consult. It’s as elementary as 2 plus 2 equaling 4.

The most persistent argument came from a fellow named Bryon. His reasoning, as I eventually came to understand it, went along these lines. To show possession for a singular noun, you simply add ‘s. Everyone knows that: Mary’s implants, Bill’s bankruptcy hearing, Susan’s birth mother, etc. Logically, the same rule should apply even if the name already ends in s: James’s undescended testicle, Thomas’s superfluous third nipple, etc. But some style guides — notably the Associated Press Stylebook, the bible for almost every newspaper in America — dictate that you drop the s, simply to make it cleaner and more readable: Gus’ tow truck, Ross’ weird lesions, and so forth. Like I said, according to all logic, that should be wrong. But it’s been adopted as a permissible alternative, and endorsed by many reputable grammarians. And since it’s what the AP does, it’s very familiar to anyone who ever reads a newspaper.

Bryon’s reasoning was that since this “wrong” method is acceptable, and has been for many years, couldn’t there be an alternative to the weird-looking Wayanses and Wayanses’ situation, too? Might not the L.A. Times and these other papers be doing this on purpose, to avoid the awkwardness of Wayanses and Wayanses’?

Well, yes, I suppose, they might. They wouldn’t, and they don’t, and they haven’t, but yes, it is technically within the realm of possibility, given the known laws of the universe, that they MIGHT.

With the James’/James’s thing, the reader knows exactly what you mean either way. It’s almost like an alternative spelling: Whether you write “canceled” or “cancelled” (one favored by some guides, the other by others), your meaning is clear. Preferring James’ over James’s makes the arrangement of letters and punctuation marks prettier without sacrificing clarity.

But if you decide Wayanses looks weird and choose to pluralize Wayans as Wayans — exactly the same as the singular — well, now you’ve introduced ambiguity. The reader has to look at the accompanying verbs (“Wayans is”; “the Wayans are”) to know whether you mean singular or plural. Wayanses might “look weird” due to its infrequency, but at least it’s clear what you mean: You mean more than one Wayans.

More to the point, the James’/James’s thing is well established. That IS one of the areas where different guides will have different answers. No style book anywhere in the English-speaking world has so far endorsed this alternative Wayans/Wayanses thing, and there was NO WAY any of these newspapers had done it on purpose. Newspapers might differ on matters of style here and there (“website” vs. “Web site,” for example), but they don’t break solid, black-and-white rules of GRAMMAR like how to pluralize proper nouns.

But now people were arguing with THAT idea, saying we didn’t really know what the newspapers were thinking without asking them. It became apparent that the issue was not going to die until we had it straight from the L.A. Times’ mouth that they had, in fact, made a mistake, and that their in-house style did not call for pluralizing last names ending in s by doing nothing.

This was further craziness. It was as if the Queen of England had appeared in a parade with her dress tucked into her panties, and now it was being suggested that maybe she’d done it that way on purpose because it was easier and looked better. And now I was going to have to ASK her: “Pardon me, your majesty, but I noticed your dress is tucked into your knickers. This fellow over here actually prefers it that way over the regular way, and he thinks you might agree with him and chose that style on purpose. I maintain that it was merely an accident, and that you will be embarrassed to have it pointed out. Could you clarify the matter for us?”

Wishing to have the matter settled, I e-mailed the senior copy chief at the Los Angeles Times:

The Times’ staff page lists you as senior copy chief for the arts & entertainment section, so I’m hoping you can clear up a debate that has erupted on a blog entry I posted the other day. (link provided)

In it, I listed several notable publications — including the L.A. Times — that had, in their reviews of the movie “Dance Flick,” referred to members of the Wayans family as “the Wayans,” when the correct plural should be “Wayanses.” (Their last name is Wayans, after all, not Wayan.)

The Times also used this phrase: “the Wayans’ deadly funny ‘Scary Movie.'” This should be “the Wayanses’ deadly funny ‘Scary Movie,'” should it not?

All of this seemed simple enough to me, yet some people posting comments on my blog took issue with it. One commenter in particular seems to believe that since “Wayanses” (and its possessive, “Wayanses'”) looks so strange, perhaps the Times has developed an in-house style that forms the plural of “Wayans” as “Wayans,” and the plural possessive as “Wayans’.”

I maintain, on the other hand, that the writer simply made a mistake, and the copy desk failed to catch it. It’s an easy mistake to make, since the singular “Wayans” already looks like a plural.

The debate seems foolish to me. I worked in the daily newspaper biz for many years, and I can’t imagine a reputable paper intentionally choosing an ungrammatical style just to avoid words that “look weird.” But I can’t seem to put the matter to rest without an authoritative voice from the Times declaring one way or the other.

Can you, therefore, either defend the use of Wayans/Wayans’, or acknowledge that an error was made? My experience with copy editors is that they tend to share my love of grammar and language, so I hope you agree that 1) this is VERY IMPORTANT BUSINESS! and 2) the record should be set straight once and for all.

Thank you,
Eric D. Snider

The senior copy chief forwarded my message to her superior, Asst. Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann. He replied as follows:

Dear Mr. Snider:

Thanks for your note regarding plural references to the ever-prolific Wayans family….

I agree that the proper plural is “Wayanses.” We certainly have no internal policies based on whether words look funny; the rules of usage are clear, and we do our best to follow them. In this case, we simply erred.

I hope this helps you set the record straight with your readers. It’s good to know about your blog, though I’m sorry that it took an error to bring your work to our attention.


P.S. We were also guilty of inconsistency. The subheadline on the May 22 review of “Dance Flick” uses “Wayanses.” That shows that we did know the rules but failed to apply them uniformly (i.e., we’re human).

So. I hope that settles it. If nothing else, the whole incident is a reminder that no matter how clear-cut something is, there will always be someone who disagrees with it. I assume that in the comments, some joker will explain how sometimes 2 plus 2 doesn’t equal 4, either.