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The only times I have ever heard the word "die" to refer to one dice are from my mother, and from my primary school English teacher. Every person I ever hear always says, "give me a dice" if they want one, and "give me the dice" if they want two. I used to "correct" people to say "die" if they meant one, but that just makes me look overly pedantic and asinine.

So I have personally started using "dice" in the singular, and "dices" in the plural, which people understand, and a few of the priggish ones will try and correct.

And on that vein of thought, I thought, why not use "ox" and "oxes" instead of the stupid "oxen". Why is there such a strong pull to hold on to archaic constructs, which don't really add flavour to the language, and in fact, just make it more confusing?

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I know it pisses me off when my sister corrects whatever perceived problem in my speech. If you want to improve someone else's, the best thing to do, in my experience, is just to speak correctly and hope they pick it up. If you don't make a point of it, you don't make a target of yourself. Usually. –  kitukwfyer Aug 7 '10 at 23:15
The plural of aircraft can be either "aircraft" or "aircrafts", check a dictionary. I prefer "aircrafts". This is probably due to the fact that "craft" is both countable and uncountable. Look that up in a dictionary too. –  Vincent McNabb Aug 18 '10 at 23:41
What if the world at large accepts your "dices", then over time begins to refer to a die as "a dices"? Then you'll have to invent "diceses", then "diceseses". Within 100 years board game rulebooks will be twice as long! –  slim Feb 3 '12 at 12:01
What a rudely chip-on-the-shoulder question! It sounds like you just took overrighteous umbrage to mask you own educational embarrassment when later in life you found that your childhood playmates spoke (or do you prefer ‘speaked’?) a non-standard dialectal variant, and have come here in hopes of trying to justify your own misunderstandings. If you expect the perfect regularity of some 2½-year-old’s limited apprehension, then go design your own bloody language. Once you has maked that cake, you’d goodest be ready to eat it. –  tchrist Feb 3 '12 at 12:56
I have never heard singular "dice", and "a dice" sounds completely wrong to me. In what community is this common? –  Monica Cellio Feb 3 '12 at 15:41

7 Answers 7

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I take the real question here to be: "Why do some people pedantically cling to dying forms?" That's a good question. I think the answer is relatively straightforward.

People who want to present an air of education and in general lay claim to upper class privilege are the ones who tend to do this. It's largely because it is an index of education and a high degree of literacy (either that or role playing games, which is somewhat different, but still primarily an upper middle class past time...).

There is a lot more to it than that, of course. There is an intricate set of language ideologies which give rise to this kind of behavior. But the short answer is that in using such forms people attempt to identify with culturally and economically powerful (hence linguistically conservative) groups .

Everyone does this to some degree, of course.

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I agree with you and realize you mentioned "an intricate set of language ideologies," but I'd like to point out anyway that some of us aren't stodgy elitists. We just think that the ridiculous inconsistencies of the language quaint and endearing, if not altogether glamorous. And some of it's unconscious. I slip into archaic word orders sometimes because I use them in German, not because I'm trying to sound smart. The same thing goes for my vocabulary. I'll say "die" because somehow or other it wormed itself into my lexicon. It received only as much invitation as the rest of my vocabulary. :) –  kitukwfyer Aug 7 '10 at 23:11
Are you saying that I'm "pedantically clinging to dying forms" and trying to "lay claim to upper class privilege" by using "oxen" instead of "oxes"? (or "feet" instead of "foots"? "men" instead of "mans"? or, "criteria" instead of—I don't know—"criterions" or "criterias"?) –  ShreevatsaR Aug 11 '10 at 20:37
Are you saying that "feet" is just as uncommon as "die"? –  Alan Hogue Aug 11 '10 at 20:46
I disagree with the notion that base illiteracy is A-OK just because it's stupid. Sometimes, illiteracy is merely sad ignorance and is nothing to be upheld as linguistic gold. You can always dig up some dingle-doofus who can't speak English, but the baseline of the language does not need to be fixed at that person's level. –  The Raven May 7 '11 at 3:03
-1 Because I disagree, and think this answer is wrong. As explained by slim's answer below: english.stackexchange.com/a/56854/1157 –  JWEnglish Dec 5 '12 at 10:33

There are other answers here that accuse people of being ostentatious about their education, or of trying to appear cleverer than they are. I want to give another theory.

If throughout your childhood, your family and friends all referred to a single die as "a die", then it's going to sound odd to you when someone does otherwise.

If most of your family, friends, teachers, and the books you read, use "fewer" rather than "less" when referring to countable items, then it's going to sound odd to you when someone does otherwise.

What if you sat down for lunch with someone, and as they bit into their sandwich, they said:

"Mmm, this is a delicious sandwiches."

It simply sounds peculiar, and you'd feel obliged to comment. You might even be a bit prescriptive. You might speculate that if your friend said that often, people would think they were stupid.

If you're used to hearing a single die referred to as "a die", you get exactly the same surprising, jarring sensation when you hear "a dice". Or "some oxes", which frankly sounds illiterate, and even upsets my spellchecker.

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To add; if you really want to modernise, you might insist that the plural of "die" is "dies". But you'd soon revert to saying "dice" because it's an easier word to say, which is how "dice" arose in the first place. –  slim Feb 3 '12 at 11:48
I wouldn't even know what "oxes" is. I'd think I misheard and they actually said "foxes" or "boxes". Could make for an interesting Christmas tableau. –  Lunivore Feb 3 '12 at 12:02
I agree. Never attribute to pedantry that which is adequately explained by upbringing. –  John Bartholomew Feb 3 '12 at 12:44
It isn't words that die. Words dying is a metaphor. Rather, their speakers die, and with them their memory of speech habits, which is all that words are. The language now lives with the next generation. And the next. Words and phrases that are alive in a mind die when their last user dies. Which is probably a generation after the last speaker; phrases and words get used in the mind, but they only breed by being used and understood. Kind of like bacteria. –  John Lawler Dec 20 '12 at 15:01

You're clearly begging the question (to pedantically use a dying word form) by assuming the conclusion that people who use a form that you find uncommon are doing it pedantically. For the record, roll a die gets about 789,000 results in google, while roll a dice gets only about 170,000 results. I go to the casino quite a bit, and I rarely hear anyone at the craps table saying "hand me that dice." Something tells me that this isn't because gamblers are an overly pedantic lot.

More likely, people simply use the variations of speech that they find most familiar. This explains why your mother and teacher say it one way, but your peers say it another. There is nothing wrong with what either group is doing; that is how language evolves. It doesn't mean anyone is dogmatically clinging to the linguistic relics of the stodgy and "flavourless" past. People, for the most part, don't put that much thought into what they are saying. They just speak.

Puzzlingly, you seem to mostly take issue with plurals that don't end with the letter 's'. What is the solution to this? Should we just change them all? In what way would that add to "the flavour of the language"? Think of all the poetry that would have to be stricken from the graces of good form. Isn't forcing people to adapt to your way of speaking just as annoyingly prescriptivist as when they try to correct you?

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People will understand what you mean, but it's not standard. Using dice as both singular and plural still isn't standard, but it's at least more common. "Dices" sounds strange to me.

The problem with using nonstandard words (because they are logical or simplified) is that it distracts the listener from the content of what you're saying. I recently watched The Human Spark on PBS, and they described a circuit in the brain that lights up when you hear a grammatical error. If your listener's brain is busy puzzling out your curious usage, they're not thinking about what you're saying.

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Assuming you are talking about ERP or MEG experiments, using "dice" in the singular would not set off one of these signals. The P600 roughly corresponds to ungrammatical utterances (by ungrammatical, I mean really ungrammatical, like subject/verb agreement errors, garden path sentences, etc.) The other main signal is set off by gross semantic inconsistencies, such as "I like my coffee with sugar and cement." Neither of them have anything to do with this, I think. –  Alan Hogue Aug 7 '10 at 8:03
Yes. Those experiments are very interesting. But I would be very interested to see the same kind of experiment on the effect of using standard pluralisations on irregular nouns. It's the kind of thing that would probably send an English literature major's brain into overdrive, but I doubt it would have much effect on normal people. –  Vincent McNabb Aug 7 '10 at 8:39
I am pretty certain that even then you wouldn't see these effects. The P600, for instance, seems to be a signature of the brain trying to reanalyze a syntactic structure. This is a totally unconscious thing and it has to do with the mechanical workings of how the brain processes syntax, nothing to do with whether someone likes a given variant or not. –  Alan Hogue Aug 7 '10 at 9:20
I would not allow "dices" under any circumstances. "A dice" is improper, but not the end of the world. –  The Raven May 7 '11 at 3:05
I have never heard the word "dice" used as in the singular and I find it jarring. "Dices" seems utterly absurd to me, since if we're going to lose the distinction between "die" and "dice", the only sensible way to do it is for "dice" to become both singular and plural. –  David Schwartz Oct 6 '11 at 12:03

It is correct to say, "hand me the die" (one) and "hand me the dice" (two or more).

However, saying "hand me the die" (where I grew up in America) seemed over-correct much as saying "I lay down yesterday for a nap" which is also correct but most people are comfortable making the mistake "I laid down yesterday for a nap" or they don't even know it is a mistake.

So saying "hand me the dice" when there is only one die on the table is in the same way common but technically incorrect.

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I wasn't so worried about whether or not it was "technically correct", which is a hard thing to say about English in general - standards vary greatly from country to country - and from generation to generation. If either of us went back 200 years, we would be greatly mocked for our horrid English. –  Vincent McNabb Aug 7 '10 at 7:05
What's so overcorrect about saying "I lay down yesterday?" –  ErikE Sep 28 '10 at 21:10
@Emtucifor the phrase "I laid down yesterday" has 16000 hits on Google while the correct phrase "I lay down yesterday" has (only) 25000. Hence both phrases are very common and in many circles it would be overcorrect to say "I lay down yesterday", e.g. if I were talking to my high school friends I would say, "I laid down yesterday" otherwise they might think "well, la ti da, where did YOU go off to school? don't want to be identified with us anymore?" Even Bob Dylan says "Lay, lady, lay" when he should be saying, "Lie, lady, lie." So it's often cool not get this 100% correct in all contexts. –  Edward Tanguay Oct 2 '10 at 2:40
I care more about correctness than coolness. It's a trade-off that I consciously make. It's good to know that the "incorrect" usage is almost on par with the correct usage, but I'm going to use the correct one and teach my children the correct one. If questioned, I'll play stupid, like "what... it's the way you say it. What's wrong with that?" –  ErikE Oct 2 '10 at 17:18
I know many people who'd use laid here, but I think most wouldn't even notice me using lay. (And this is one of those things which I couldn't get "wrong" without conscious effort.) –  TRiG Oct 14 '10 at 22:40

Some people (myself included) would prefer that all of the language is preserved. When teaching my students I make a point of using older usages to stimulate, entertain and inform. I see no reason why anything has to fall into disuse.

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Whereas the rest of the world ‘would prefer that all language be preserved.’ ☺ I find is to be ungrammatical in that slot, at least in my dialect. For me the verb prefer, especially in the conditional sense of ‘would prefer that …’ needs to take the mandative/present subjunctive — if you really must use a finite verb there. So in a formal register, ‘I’d prefer that she be here early’. In more casual registers, one swaps that around and says ‘I’d prefer (for) her to be here early.’ I’m guessing you’re a UK speaker, where your version is seen&heard a lot more than in North America. –  tchrist Feb 3 '12 at 13:05
Your last assumption is correct. North Americans don't really speak the Queen's English like what I do ;-) –  5arx Feb 3 '12 at 13:36
This is one of many areas where North America, by virtue of changing less quickly, preserved a form once common in Britain but which UK speakers have now for the most part lost. Or rather, had once lost: it turns out that use of the mandative subjunctive by educated UK speakers is on the rise again, due to North American influence re-invigorating it. You really should thank us for safekeeping the language, you know, as we tend to keep all these little tidbits (or titbits :) that you’ve unconsciously managed to let fall out of your linguistic pockets, like cleaning up after old folks. ☺ –  tchrist Feb 3 '12 at 14:15
So you’re saying that North America has some particular monopoly on people whose speech is rude, or careless, or is hypersensitive to cutsie intonation patterns marking them as part of an exclusive ingroup? I don’t believe you. That’s a very difficult argument to make. Nor have you come even vaguely close to supporting it. –  tchrist Feb 3 '12 at 17:42
No, I'm not saying anything of the kind and I can't imagine how you read that into anything I have posted in this thread. What I'm saying, in a knowingly facetious, tongue-in-cheek manner which is directed largely at gently mocking and goading you, is that the popular North American idiom, which has spread to pretty much every country and culture on Earth has done a great deal to debase the English language ;) –  5arx Feb 5 '12 at 23:49

Language is a living thing. It changes with time and it changes with culture. This is especially true of the English language which has no official body prescribing correct usage. (Unlike French and Spanish for example)

People will tend to use what they read and hear. Those who rely on street culture for their vocabulary will differ from those who routinely read the classics.

As far as I am concerned it doesn't really matter. It's quite possible to use formal language for formal discussions and slang for everyday speech. I don't hear many gangsta rappers discussing oxen! If gamers say 'die' and everyone else says 'dice', that's okay - just use 'die' when you are playing games.

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I'm interested to know what got me voted down. Please let me know so I can improve my answer - thanks. –  chasly from UK Jul 10 at 12:06
+1 from me. It doesn't matter. –  Araucaria Jul 10 at 17:58

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