Friday, March 14, 2008

Neither can I

In a recent LL post Geoffrey Pullum says "But I can't make head or tail of it."

I've only heard the plurals in that idiom: "heads or tails". Is Pullum playing with the idiom or is that how he's always heard/used it? Is that an earlier form of the idiom? Is it a typo or is it a purposeful reminder of the original?

So I do a quick Google™ search.

"make head or tail of it" -- 23,500 hits
"make heads of tails of it" -- 33,200 hits

Of course this doesn't answer any of my questions. It was just surprising to see how close they are in hits. I expected the ratio would favor the plurals by a lot more.

And there was another result that didn't clarify any of my questions. The first result for "heads or tails": this LL post -- also by Pullum.


  1. Other variants:

    "Heads nor tails of it" = 4,800 hits

    "Head nor tail of it" = 11,600

    Seriously, what the hell is going on there? Separated by a Common Language has a post addressing the plurals, and there's some talk in the comments about the "nor" variants.

  2. Is the singular more British? Is Pullum reverting now that he's back in the UK? ;-)

    I would have thought the plural to be much more common, too.

  3. Yes, it's a BrE/AmE difference--discussed back here:

    Also did 'Neither/nor':


  4. Ah so perhaps it is a reacculturation.

    or whatever word works there.

    Thanks Lynne

  5. I see that Blogger truncated the URLs.

    The making head(s)/tail(s) post is here, and the Neither/nor do I post is here.


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