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All my life I knew it as "I can do a split", but recently it has come to my attention that many people refer to it as "the splits" which sounds absolutely dreadful to my ear because it defies all the rules of pluralization.

You can do a somersault and you can do "the tango" but you're not doing the tangos or the sumersaults, so, why the splits?! Additionally, it makes it very difficult to describe what sort of split you're doing. "I'm doing a front split" rolls off the tongue a lot more naturally than "I'm doing a front the splits". Anyway... I am curious if anyone knows what the origin of this odd abnormality is.

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This is the absolute first time I've ever heard "the splits." I agree: this sounds horrendous. –  Jay Jan 25 '11 at 3:32
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I've always known this move as "the splits". So it goes. –  JSBձոգչ Jan 25 '11 at 4:08
    
This drives me absolutely crazy. I always thought that "the splits" was a strange sexual position or maybe a type of disease or particularly painful injury, while doing "a split" was the gymnastic move. –  user15295 Nov 26 '11 at 22:40

5 Answers 5

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Doing the splits (or at least attempting them) is a common stretching exercise in martial arts.

Per OxfordDictionaries.com:

split, noun : 2 (the splits or US also a split) (in gymnastics and dance) an act of leaping in the air or sitting down with the legs straight and at right angles to the body, one in front and the other behind, or one at each side: I could never do the splits before

In my taekwondo classes, we use front splits and side splits (aka plain old splits) as part of our stretching routine.

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I'm going to go ahead and take Oxford's word for it and accept that "doing a split" is one of the two acceptable ways that this move is described in the States, while only being known as "The Splits" in the rest of the English speaking world. –  Dr.Dredel Jun 21 '12 at 5:13

I've always heard it as "the splits," but I'm not a gymnast. A bit of research shows that gymnasts use the singular "split." (They use the plural "splits" when referring to two or more types of splits.)

http://www.gymnasticsrevolution.com/Parents14.htm

http://gymnastics.about.com/od/trainingadvice/ss/frontsplit.htm

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You can do "a split" or "the splits". They are interchangeable. But you would never say "a front the splits". You would say "a front split" and walk away smiling, even if you pulled a groin muscle.

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You'd say "I can do the front splits". –  gpr Jan 25 '11 at 1:07
    
@gpr: That too. –  Robusto Jan 25 '11 at 1:12

I’ve never heard of singular split with this meaning, and nor has the OED, which provides a citation from 1861 for the first use of the splits. The use of a plural form for what looks as if it should be singular is not unprecedented. First there are the ‘plurale tantum’ words like trousers, scissors and clothes. But then, too, we have plurals like the runs (diarrhœa), the heebie-jeebies (feeling of discomfort) and the mockers (bad luck). The splits seems to belong morphologically with these.

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The problem with this is that unlike the runs or scissors or the heebie-jeebies or any other example I can think of, The Splits has multiple forms of use that necessitate a singular form. No one is ever concerned about having "a run" in regard to making it to the toilet. The Splits starts out sounding wrong but then quickly devolves into being un-useable when you have to describe a particular kind of split. "I'm just able to do a side split but have a long way to go to a front split". –  Dr.Dredel Nov 27 '11 at 21:01
    
And as to the OED, I've now found reference (that of course I can't locate now) that it is the Brits that call it "the splits" while in American English it's known as "A Split". –  Dr.Dredel Nov 27 '11 at 21:02
    
@Dr.Dredel - no, it's simple. You do the front splits, or the side splits. There is nothing unusable about that syntax. –  Rory Alsop Jan 30 '12 at 22:53
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Just confirming that in England we do indeed say "the splits", and saying "a split" would sound odd, as if you were attempting the gymnastic equivalent of one hand clapping. –  Lunivore Jan 30 '12 at 23:03
    
@RoryAlsop, well, obviously there are ways to make anything work, but consider how much work is involved in converting this oddball phrase to make use of it as you do. What other example can you think of that functions this way? –  Dr.Dredel Jan 30 '12 at 23:33

I have been a touring musician for years, and discovered this problem along the way. Somewhere in the midwest was the first time I heard of "The Splits". They thought I was an idiot for calling it "A Split". The explanation: The olympic event is called "The Splits"...as in, "She did well on the parallel bars, now it's time for the splits"....

I thought that was an inadequate explanation for why whole populations of people, more or less by region, shared this terminology.

What's needed for futher clarification is a map like this one, for the usage in question:

http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2752093039136&set=a.2190936530574.2113805.1161952054&type=1&theater

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consider that that explanation makes no sense since the splits they're talking about there are in fact a SERIES of moves, not a single one. I agree that the regional map would be very interesting if such a thing existed. I'm not convinced it's based on region. I know of many people who know the term one way or the other but who live in the same general area. –  Dr.Dredel Jan 30 '12 at 23:35

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