Language and technology have never been the most steadfast of bedfellows. To most tech-heads, proper syntax has more to do with debugging code than subject-verb agreement, which is probably why technology products create some of the most infuriating cases of grammar confusion found in the English language.

Case in point: The iPod nano. (And yes, Apple insists that nano be lowercase.)

How would you describe a group comprised of more than one iPod nano? You’d say iPod nanos, right? Or is it iPod nanoes, as in more than one potato means you’ve got potatoes? (Of course, this is not a universal rule, as more than one piano gives you pianos.)

Or is it iPods nano, as we’re pluralizing the noun and not the adjective? This would be similar to the case that more than one sister-in-law means sisters-in-law and not sister-in-laws.

It’s a grammatical conundrum for sure. But it’s just one of many to originate from Apple’s marketing department, what with its linguistically irritating habit of giving several products a noun-then-modifier namesake, such as MacBook Pro or Mac Mini.

Of course, what do you expect from a company whose motto is itself a grammatical error? Think Different is an adjective modifying a verb. Only adverbs can properly modify verbs, so the slogan should be Think Differently.

So, how does one say or write the plural of iPod nano? Well, iPod nano is a compound noun, which means you can place the pluralizing –s in either spot. Typically, pluralizing the lower noun (the noun within the compound element) as opposed to the higher noun (the whole compound) is traditionally only correct in hyphenated forms, such as the aforementioned sister-in-law. So you wouldn’t expect to see iPods nano. The issue of –s versus –es pluralization comes down to convention, so it’s up to Apple to decide.

Apple, unfortunately, goes out of its way in marketing copy not to pluralize any product name — or even use articles such as an or the. Apple treats products like singular, proper nouns, as in “While it can’t stop the rain, iPod nano might make your day a bit brighter.” All I can say is write its customer service department for an answer to this pluralization debate.

Now, before you declare it unreasonable to expect a major product manufacturer to waste time on such trivial matters as official pluralization, I’d refer to the infamous case of the Sony Walkman — a product so revolutionary, popular, and grammatically confounding that Sony had to list an approved plural form of the word.


Get the answer.

What is the official, Sony-approved plural form of Walkman?

It’s not Walkmans. It’s not Walkmen. The official plural of Walkman is Walkman personal stereos. Seriously.

There’s no one specific reason why Sony sidestepped the issue of pluralization, but a significant contributing factor is international trademark law. While Walkman may be a recognized Sony trademark, Walkmen may not have stood up in court as an equivalent pluralization — especially when translations are involved — so Sony set out a marketing and legal directive that made sure no reseller or affiliate would ever advertise or sell Walkmans or Walkmen, just Walkman personal stereos.

It’s also worth noting that the Walkman’s success was much more a triumph of marketing than technology, as Sony merely used off-the-shelf tech to create the personal stereo that debuted on July 1, 1979. The name Walkman is actually a play off a previous Sony product, the Pressman, or portable cassette recorder marketed primarily to journalists (as in the press).

Sony’s chairman demanded a similar device with headphones so he could listen to music on transoceanic airplane flights. After mocking up such a device, Sony recognized that it had some commercial potential and quickly got the ball rolling on the Walkman.

Except that the aforementioned chairman reputedly hated the name Walkman, which is why the company originally marketed the device as the Soundabout in the United States, the Storaway in Britain, and the Freestyle in Sweden. Apocryphally, Sony may have also worried that Walkman sounded too much like a crude translation of the product’s Japanese name, and thus would not inspire confidence in the Walkman if consumers thought that Sony couldn’t even get the name right.

Of course, the Walkman name — and product — proved wildly popular, so much so that most people informally refer to all portable cassette players as Walkmans (or Walkmen), regardless of manufacturer. Meanwhile, Sony has embraced the -man nomenclature, producing the Watchman portable TV, the Discman portable CD player (AKA the CD Walkman), and the Talkman voice translation software, which runs on the PlayStation Portable handheld video game console.

All of them, one assumes, also have prescribed, Sony-approved pluralizations, making them another example of strained techno-grammar — and linguistically entertaining Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from the June 20 edition of Geek Trivia, “The ice is right.” TechRepublic member Asset Manager disputed my conjugation of a chemical name for water.

“I think the reference to ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ is incorrect. According to my Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (an ancient edition: 51st), it should be simply hydrogen oxide.”

Well, yes and no: In 2005, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) declared that any chemical conjugation that accurately described the chemical was acceptable. The IUPAC prefers hydrogen oxide, hydroxic acid, or hydroxilic acid for describing water. However, a whole host of alternatives is acceptable, including hydrogen hydroxide, oxidane, or hydrohydroxic acid. I invoked the rather overstated dihydrogen monoxide as a subtle reference to this hoax, which aims to bolster chemistry awareness and common sense.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

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