As a teacher, I often receive anonymous homework, essays and even tests. In Portuguese, 'anonymous' can be a noun so it wouldn't be unheard of for a Portuguese teacher to say something like this (literal translation)...

'can you believe I had two anonymous in my last test?'

Obviously such a construction is not grammatical in English.

However, could the word be transformed into a proper name? Could I say something like...

'I had a Mr Anonymous in my last test?'

And if it's possible, would it still work in...

'I had two Mr Anonymous in my last test'?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Edwin Ashworth, Hank, Canis Lupus, NVZ, Mitch Mar 13 '17 at 16:19

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  • What's the benefit to the student of doing work anonymously? – Dan Bron Feb 26 '17 at 11:54
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    @DanBron I imagine Sara is referring to students who forget to write their names on assignments, they hand in essays/papers w/o writing who they are. P.S Anyone who forgets to write their name on a test paper should be marked Fail, regardless how well it was done. In real life, under real examination conditions, an unsigned/unnamed exam paper is not marked. – Mari-Lou A Feb 26 '17 at 12:07
  • @Mari-LouA Ah, yes, that makes much more sense! Thank you. – Dan Bron Feb 26 '17 at 12:12
  • @Centaurus: I'm referring to European Portuguese. Eg. One student forgot to write his name. After I've marked all other works, I'll know who the nameless work belongs to so, when I'm handing it back to the students, I call all their names and when I get to the last one I'll call "Anónimo!" and the student will sheepishly say "Ah, did I forget to write my name?" – Sara Costa Feb 26 '17 at 12:19
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    if you have mixed classes, say, "anonymous kids/students". To inject humour, you could have a short class discussion about the comic heroes X-men, and ask if the X stands for anonymous OLD:1.2. Denoting an unknown or unspecified person or thing. Then announce that you have discovered two X-kids. Explain these nameless heroes sacrifice their scores for the greater good of humanity. – Mari-Lou A Feb 26 '17 at 14:32

Terry Pratchett played with this idea extensively in his Discworld novels. He used the idea of a 'Metasyntactic variable' (his own nomenclature I believe but open to correction). I suspect it also arose from his early onset Alzheimers. The flexibility of English makes it particularly suited to this kind of usage.

Imagine you do not know, or have forgotten, someone's name, or the name of a thing. A meaningful sentence can still be constructed. 'I met what's-his-name yesterday.' 'what's-his-name' is the metasyntactic variable standing in for the unknown name. One of Terry's favourite was the contraction 'wossname' which could be either what's-his-name, what's-her-name, or what's-its'-name. A very metasyntactic variable. The L-Space reference here or Google Terry Pratchett wossname.

Who or what the person / object is can be made clear from context but still leave sufficient ambiguity for puns (of which Terry was a master) and humor.

Clearly this is a device for humor in Terry's work, but as with so much of his writting, containing a self deprecating acknowledgement of his own struggle and those with a like condition.

Returning directly to your question, yes.

The use of a metasyntactic stand-in such as Mr Anonymous would be perfectly acceptable but it should be understood as a humorous construction.

Because of the Greek etymology the plural of anonymous is anonymous'. In English this is an awkward construction as is the pronunciation with the double s at the end.

If you had two un-named papers you could go down the route of, 'Mr Anonymous A' and 'Mr Anonymous B'. Or use another Pratchettism and use 'Mr Anonymous' and 'Mr Insert-Name-Here'.

As an academic at a community college I am in complete agreement with @Mari-LouA. No name, no mark. I do however appreciate @Sara Costa's situation.

It may be worth considering however (after appropriate discussion with management) that handing out the odd F to unnamed paper submitters, particularly persistant ones, will:

  • Provide a valuable life lesson they are unlikely to soon forget

  • Motivate other students not to make the same mistake

And yes I am that academic. Cruel but fair.

  • Good answer. In re metasyntactic variable, no, Pratchett didn't invent it, though he used it correctly. I can't find an established etymology, but the first hit I found for the term metasyntactic variable was in an Emacs manual from 1990 where it's used unselfconsciously and without definition, so clearly it was well-established by that point. The earliest use of metasyntactic alone I could find in Google Books was from an ALGOL Bulletin, but I would be surprised indeed if it isn't a lot older than that. – Dan Bron Feb 26 '17 at 15:29
  • Ok, I found a much earlier use of the full term metasyntactic variable than the 1990 Emacs manual. The term is defined and used in the 1974 book The MDL Programming Language. The term is defined on p. 4, as "something to be replaced, in actual use, by something else" (as in foo or your wossname). Further, on p. 44, it says "the convention that a metasyntactic variable can..", meaning the term had history even then. – Dan Bron Feb 26 '17 at 15:37
  • Thanks @Dan Bron. I've seen it used in computer science myself & have wondered if it was one of Terry's imaginative retaskings or maybe a fanboy acknowledgement. Either way I am now quite unable to read it without a chuckle. – pHred Feb 26 '17 at 15:43
  • Have edited my answer to expressly make clear why I don't feel anonymous' plural works. – pHred Feb 26 '17 at 15:56
  • In case you're interested, I have kicked-off an investigation into the origins of the term "metasyntactic variable" here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/375614/… – Dan Bron Feb 26 '17 at 17:14

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