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I keep hearing "A savings of $10" or that something is "a ways off".

Sounds deeply weird to my British English ear.

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And it sounds deeply weird to my American ear when you say "at university" or "in hospital" without "the". –  JSBձոգչ Feb 4 '11 at 21:47
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Do Brits not use the word means as in "a means to an end"? –  Kosmonaut Feb 4 '11 at 22:50
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It’s not really plural if you use the word a in front of it, is it? It’s just a noun ending in s –  nohat Feb 5 '11 at 23:25
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@Dour High Arch really? “the <NOUN>” implies that there is only one <NOUN> in existence? –  nohat Feb 6 '11 at 2:56
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@JSBᾶngs: Does "at school" sound strange to you too? It would be the same concept to me as "at university". –  Raku Sep 5 '11 at 15:51

8 Answers 8

I generally consider "saving" to be the act and "savings" the resulting product of that act. This pundit/economist makes a similar point.

So I might say "I made a savings of $10." or "I am saving $10 by switching vendors."

I don't consider savings plural, but a collective noun. This is similar to

"One billion dollars is a lot of money."

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Similarly, "I spent my entire life savings on that house." This seems instinctive to me: I save every day, after many days I have savings from those days, and at this point in my life I have my "life savings" (or perhaps "life's savings"). –  Wayne Jun 25 '11 at 19:50
    
@Wayne: I think of it as "life's savings," although indeed they're pronounced the same. –  Peter Shor Sep 3 '11 at 12:33
    
@Wayne: in BrE, you have a saving after the first day, and (after you have made another saving by switching vendors), you have savings which you can put in a savings bank. It sounds like in your usage saving can't be a noun: is that right? –  TimLymington Sep 4 '11 at 16:58
    
Would someone mind explaining to me how this answers the question posed? –  Kyle Pearson Sep 5 '11 at 12:20
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@Kyle: certainly. The question, expanded, is "In British English, a savings is ungrammatical, as mixing singular and plural. American English has no problem with the phrase (and similar ones); what is the mechanism?" JRideout thinks that savings is not the plural of saving, but a collective noun, treated as a singular in the American way. If this is true, you couldn't have a better answer. –  TimLymington Sep 6 '11 at 12:48

Savings certainly seems to originate from saving. Both British and American English have a tendency to let uncountable nouns take plurals if there is a manner and contextual reason to discretize them. ("look at all the water!" for a natural body vs. "look at all the waters!" for, perhaps, an impressive number of glasses of water) As others have pointed out, it is reasonable to conceptually divide your overall saving into many saving-s, especially if they are arriving in the form of many meager paychecks. This explanation isn't entirely satisfying, though, as the word is actually interpreted as singular in current use.

Etymonline attests savings to 1737, and the compound savings bank to 1817. Usage in compounds may affect the distribution across AE/BE. American English generally requires the attributive element in a compound noun to be singular, whereas BE has occurrences of both plural and singular. From Wikipedia:

The plural may be used to emphasise the plurality of the attribute, especially in British English but very rarely in American English: a careers advisor, a languages expert.

As such, Americans may have been reinterpreting savings in savings bank/account/deposit/etc as an independent singular word, while Brits saw it as a plural form linked to the verb save. (Here I have two identical words in my lexicon: one for the derived plural savings = repeated actions of saving, and one for the independent unit savings = a sum of reserved money) The matter is further muddled by AE/BE differences on collectives. American English is unable to use bare collective nouns as plurals, and so constructions of the savings is... and similar tended to reinforce the singularity of the term. Another factor is blocking by alternate terms - namely, Wikipedia claims that the term savings and loan is uncommon in the UK, as building societies were a more common, related institution.

This whole conjecture (in its wild and unverified glory) reminds me of Steven Pinker's word structure theory, as described in "Words and Rules: the Ingredients of Language". He offers situations like bigfoot and walkman, where the term is notably distinct from its head word (foot and man), and so must be considered a single, new unit when constructing plurals. Hence most people will say bigfoots and walkmans rather than bigfeet and walkmen.

Ways in expressions like a ways off was likely not a plural form; from OED:

In a good, great, little, long ways, and a ways, the origin of the use of ways for way is obscure. It might possibly have arisen from the analogy of phrases containing the adverbial genitive.

As for why the expressions are more common in AE, your guess is as good as mine. The rise and fall of usage is subject to so many intervening historical factors, it's amazing to me that anyone can get any research done at all in etymology.

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"waters" is used for natural bodies too: consider "waters of the Nile", also Lewis Carroll's "How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail, // And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale!" –  ShreevatsaR Sep 3 '11 at 13:08
    
Ahh yes good point. It was the first example that came to mind though and I think it still illustrates the contrast. –  tdhsmith Sep 3 '11 at 20:33
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Savings, leavings, cuttings, shavings: the word makes perfect sense in the context of these other pluralized gerunds, each of which makes perfect sense in the context in which they are used. In fact, to my ears saying that one has "Lost one's saving" is absurdly ungrammatical. It's like a cook telling the help "Don't throw out the leaving!" or a woodworker saying to his assistant "Sweep up the shaving!" –  Kyle Pearson Sep 5 '11 at 12:22
    
I probably wasn't clear enough. But when I hear "a savings" in the US, it's in the context of a price reduction. Ie the amount you saved compared to the original price. I'm not sure if I've heard it in the context of money saved in the bank or not. –  Gareth Simpson Jan 2 '12 at 13:39

NOAD gives this usage note:

Use savings in the modifying position (savings bank, savings bond) and when referring to money saved in a bank: your savings are fully insured. When speaking of an act of saving, as when one obtains a discount on a purchase, the preferred form is saving: with this coupon you will receive a saving of $3 (not a savings of $3).

So much for the prescriptive point of view. When you hear "a savings" it is normally from ad-speak, which is a notoriously unreliable source of grammaticality in English. Nevertheless it is pervasive (which in pop culture works with the same effect as persuasive). People hear a thing often and adopt it in their own speech. Today, I doubt many people are even sure which is appropriate, and just go with whatever sounds right to their ear.

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I don't think it's just adspeak. From National Magazine ca. 1900 (found by Google books): His possessions, which cost him a life's savings of $4000, were seized by the Boer government in 1882, because he had borne arms for his native land in the fight for Transvaal independence. –  Peter Shor Sep 3 '11 at 14:02
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@Peter Shor: But the savings is likely to be plural there, since it represents multiple instances of saving. –  Robusto Sep 3 '11 at 14:04
    
you still have the singular article "a" with the plural noun "savings", which I think is what the OP is puzzled about (although maybe here the singular article goes with "life"). –  Peter Shor Sep 3 '11 at 14:09
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@Peter Shor: I believe "the savings of a life" would be rendered as "a life's savings"; so the article would refer to life, not savings. –  Robusto Sep 3 '11 at 14:22
    
You're right. But you still get phrases like "which the self-help families purchased at a substantial savings through group buying" from 1894 (again, through Google books). –  Peter Shor Sep 3 '11 at 14:46

It is just one of those dialect things. Interesting exactly the reverse is also true. In the UK kids learn maths in school, whereas in the US kids learn math. There is even less excuse for that than "a ways off", since math(s) is only half of the word mathematics.

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I think the reason Brits do maths is simply that we tend to truncate long, common words. So do Americans, obviously (witness auto instead of automobile). The only difference with maths is that Brits notice and preserve the apparent pluralisation of the full form. This isn't related to savings/woods, where there's probably either a "degenerate genitive" or "uncountable collective noun" involved. –  FumbleFingers Sep 4 '11 at 12:52

I think I can explain what's going on. First, I'll explain with "savings" and "woods". In some dialects of American English, "savings" and "woods" are uncountable nouns ("savings" with considerably more frequency than "woods"). You generally don't say "a savings" or "a woods", but "some savings" and "some woods".

However, suppose you wanted to translate "a small wood" from British to American. You can't say "a small wood", because the noun is "woods". You can't say "some small woods", because that would mean there was actually more than one wood.1 To be strictly grammatical, you probably should say "a small expanse of woods" or "a small stretch of woods",2 but lots of people just say "a small woods".

It's the same thing with savings. Generally, you'd say

I have some savings in the bank.

But when you need to put a quantity to it, "some" stops sounding right, and you get

I have a savings of $100 in the bank.

Compare this to another uncountable noun, "water". You can say "Walking through the woods, we came to some water," but you can't say "we came to some small water," or "some water of 30 hectares."

For "ways", you hear both "some ways off" and "a ways off". This Google Ngram suggests that originally, the expressions people used were "some ways off" and "a good ways off", just like "some woods" and "a small woods". However, now "a ways off" has taken over.

1 Actually, Google search yields quite a few instances where "some small woods" means "a small wood". To me, "a small woods" sounds much better than "some small woods" for the singular, even though without the adjective, "some woods" sounds better than "a woods", but that might just be my dialect.

2 Google Ngrams shows that the most common collective noun used with "woods" is clearly "stretch", although "area" and "expanse" are not uncommon. A problem with my example above is that expanses are not small. The phrase "large expanse of woods" collects 40 times as many hits as "small expanse of woods".

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In Brit Eng you only have savings of £100, without the "a". Even if it's savings of £100 in my own account, plus a half-share in savings of £1000 jointly owned with my wife. –  FumbleFingers Sep 3 '11 at 13:08
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@FumbleFingers: In Am Eng, some people do say "savings of 100$", without the "a". But using the "a" is quite common. –  Peter Shor Sep 3 '11 at 13:46
    
NGrams flatlines on "have a savings of", but I found a couple of hundred by searching directly in Google Books. Some of the usages seem even weirder to me than OP's. A savings of 7/8ths of the cost, for example, certainly sounds a bit "rustic" to me. I wonder if it's either increasing or decreasing in prevalance in the US. –  FumbleFingers Sep 3 '11 at 14:37
    
I've been searching Google books to try to get support for my answer, and am not getting that far. Certainly some woods and the woods have been used as a collective noun (even in the U.K.) for many years, but I find a woods suddenly appears around 1828/9 in the U.S., and I can't find any previous instances of a woods with modifiers. –  Peter Shor Sep 3 '11 at 22:03
    
I'm not sure "the woods" is particularly US usage. Personally I'm okay calling a smallish wooded area "a wood" or "a woods", though I do shy a bit at the plural there. But I'm quite happy saying that as a child I played in "the woods" - and it really was only one area, not several separate ones. The thing is, it's often irrelevant how many "woods" there are, so long as there's at least one. And sometimes boundaries are vague in the real world; some people see two woods where others see only one. –  FumbleFingers Sep 3 '11 at 22:39

You are all making this much too complicated. Americans simply like to put "s" on things that don't need it. In football there is an off side and an on side. The penalty is for being off side. However, half of Americans say off sides. There is no one who says there is a penalty for pass interferences or roughing the passers. Only off side gets this extra "s". The same is true for savings. The plural version is a legitimate word for multiple savings. However saying "a savings" is the same as saying "a books" which would never be accepted. Once the error becomes common usage it is natural to try to justify it, particularly if you didn't know it was wrong. However, that doesn't mean it's not wrong.

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+1 for pointing out that "a savings of $600" is just wrong –  ukayer May 18 '13 at 7:17

Basically, you're "mis-spelling" the word "ways"; not really, of course -- it's perfectly acceptable to spell "ways" without an apostrophe -- but many people (myself included) sometimes do, and you're misapprehending what the "s" signifies, as a result. Think of the word as if it were "A way's off", as in a possessive. It's still idiomatic, but think of it in the context of this sentence:

"That's a good day's work."

According to Google, most people don't include the apostrophe. This is almost exactly the same construction, and is doing almost exactly the same thing, grammatically (almost -- one's a noun, the other's an adjective, but nouns and adjectives are sister forms anyway, so...). If we were to include a few dropped words, it would look this way:

"That's a good day's [worth of] work."

Both those sentences can still be heard quite commonly, in the US. So now, look at this sentence:

"That's a good way's [worth of] distance."

Or, as the other respondent above noted:

"That's a little way's [travel-time] off."

Because not many people who speak this way spend much time writing, few ever reflect on why it is they speak the way they do; but these sorts of omitted words and phrases can commonly be resurrected or eliminated, as the need arises. "That's a good way's a-way" can turn into "That's a good bit away," (as in: that's a good bit (of travel) away" or "a good stretch away". So the "-s", here is a remnant of a genitive, and has nothing to do with plural or singular. The OED hints at this, but in truth the derivation is pretty clear-cut; the "-s" sound in ancient Middle English often indicated a genitive case (as is the case with "whence").

The genitive is also called "the possessive case", so what I'm saying here is totally consistent with the idea that this is a holdover from an ancient genitive. All i'm trying to do is give you a more direct way of apprehending what it means when we say "ways" isn't plural, but is instead a holdover from the genitive.

"Savings" is much more easily understood; one can save a lot more than money, so "all the things/items/possessions I have saved" would be equal to "All my savings." Similarly, the grammar is analogous to this phrase, which one might hear in a barbershop:

"Jimmy, come sweep up the cuttings."

"Cuttings" would also often be used in clothing factories, plant nurseries, tailor shops, and the like. In a kitchen, after people have finished dining, one might hear:

"Set the leavings aside for the dog."

"The leavings" is simply a short way of saying "what everyone has left," or "whatever is left over". Or, in a wood-working shop:

"Sweep up the shavings, and toss them out."

So: savings, cuttings, leavings, and shavings: you will find all of these are standard terms listed in the dictionary. None are considered regional, none are considered slang, and none are marked as peculiar dialect. These are all standard English words.

Within the context of these examples, "savings" makes perfect sense: after one has paid off one's expenses, and settled one's debts (by whatever means possible), whatever one manages to hold on to is one's savings.

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I found several hundred instances of a ways off in Google Books, but not a single one with the apostrophe. Googling the whole Net gets 17K hits for your version, but that's against 3.5M for the uninflected version, so I think your derivation is incorrect. –  FumbleFingers Sep 3 '11 at 14:43
    
I never made the argument that this is a common way of spelling it. You need to re-read what i wrote; i drew a direct analogy with other common phrases, and indicated various ways in which the phrases could be expanded that were consistent with the interpretation offered. The question is not "how is it spelled", but "why does it have an 's'". Genitive case changed into the possessive case, in English. This is an ancient genitive. Do the math. –  Kyle Pearson Sep 3 '11 at 14:50
    
ABC news has a story titled "A Good Day's Work"; the construction has only 318,000 hits on google, compared to 2+ mil for "A Good Days Work". You can google for gold all you want, but that doesn't shed any light on hidden structures and rules; those results only reveal spelling conventions which may or may not indicate actual etymological, grammatical or syntactical morphologies. –  Kyle Pearson Sep 3 '11 at 14:54
    
The question: "Why does American English pluralize certain nouns?" My Answer: "It's not a plural. It's a possessive case, ancient holdover from a genitive case, and easily understood with reference to other phrases which make the relationship more clear." Above: "OED says it's likely not a plural form." I said that, except that i definitively said it's not. How do i know? Because i grew up saying it, that's how. OED says: "Likely a holdover from the genitive case." In English, Gen. = poss. My answer: It's better grasped as a possessive than a plural. Where am i wrong? –  Kyle Pearson Sep 3 '11 at 14:59
    
And, of course, the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night. In such cases the possessive does apply. I'm just saying I don't think it does with a ways off. Some Americans also say thataways (where Brits always omit the "s"), and I'm sure there is no "lost possessive apostrophe" involved there either. –  FumbleFingers Sep 3 '11 at 15:02

I think it's merely an attempt to communicate a greater magnitude, i.e., that "a savings" is greater than "a saving".

I would generally associate this with the American South / West...though I don't think this would sound out of place in the North in Britain (correct me if I 'm wrong - I'm American). Are you perhaps from the south of England?

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That's interesting. It never occurred to me that it conveyed emphasis. I've actually lived in a few different parts of England (predominantly the north), so I'm relatively sure that this usage is not widespread, if it exists at all. –  Gareth Simpson Feb 6 '11 at 17:17
    
I thought it might be Irish, or thereabouts. That's always my go-to source for Southern oddities... the American South inherited a lot linguistically (as well as a lot of other wonderful cultural things) from the Irish. What you might also find funny is that when we (here in Texas) want to refer to something that's NOT far away, we generally say that it's only a "little ways off". There might also be something to an interpretation of "a way's off", but I don't think that applies to the "savings" example. –  Chris B. Behrens Feb 7 '11 at 17:54
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Actually, the American South inherited a lot from the Scots, most of whom were either prisoners in Georgia (there were some Irish, too, but...), or -- more often -- settled in Appalachia. The Irish exerted their influence on American English mainly from the North East, in New england. The South of the US got most of its influence from French, the English, Africans, and the Scots. Not so much the Irish. –  Kyle Pearson Sep 3 '11 at 10:32
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I don't believe this is the reason for "a savings," and it's certainly not the reason for "a woods." The reason is that savings and woods are both collective nouns. They can't be singularized, and so when you do have to singularize them you some people say "a small woods." The better way to do this would be to say "a small amount of savings" or "a small stretch of woods." –  Peter Shor Sep 3 '11 at 12:30

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