Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mass/count appreciation post

Several weeks ago I picked up my sister's kids from school. I saw this poster in the window of the entrance shelter.

That's a nice gesture. Good teachers deserve our deliberate expressions of appreciation. And the staff of a school also deserve our thanks. I didn't pause on the slightly non-parallel construction of this poster. I didn't even notice it. In this sentence both teacher and staff are being used as nominal adjectives. And I'm going to forgo a hefty discussion of how an adjective indicates the individuals or groups at whom the appreciation is directed. This form is just as clear as Appreciation-for-teachers-and-staff Week.

But the non-parallel structure that I mention is between the count noun "teacher" and the non-count noun "staff." As a nominal adjective they both work the same.

Teacher Appreciation Week
Staff Appreciation Week

Both fine. And I'm not saying that when used together there's a problem. Teacher and Staff Appreciation Week is also fine. Like I already said -- I didn't even notice it when I read this poster.

But I did notice it once I read the second poster encouraging expression of that appreciation.

To me that one sounds funny. I hear staff as a non-count mass noun I expect each individual in the staff to be called a staff member. Or maybe a member of the staff.

It is just barely OK to my ear to say 'have you thanked staff today' meaning 'have you thanked several staff members today?' So in the sentence "have you thanked a teacher or staff today?" I automatically extend the determiner "a" to both "__teacher" and "__staff" which I then understand as a teacher and a staff which sounds to me like a teacher and a walking stick.


  1. To me, 'have you thanked staff today?" is ok on the reading "have you thanked any staff?", but I may be influenced by the greater use of 'staff' in the UK versus the US.

    Who wrote/posted the signs? While I do believe that teachers/school staff need more appreciation, this looks to me like signs saying "have you thanked me today?", which is kind of obnoxious.

  2. I think it would be much better as "Have you thanked staff or a teacher today?" - and "Have you thanked any of the staff or teachers (teachers or staff) today?" completely unpeculiar.

  3. Ridger: "staff or a teachers" works ok for me to. "teachers or staff" is even better. the parallel plural/mass noun construction seems to take care of itself.

    Lynne: i never even thought of that. it's rather presumptuous isn't it? I know that Kevin the principal does this kind of thing a lot. At least by the typical categories of this parochial system principals are neither teachers nor staff. Teachers and upper administration are usually included in the faculty while the non academic support is the staff -- office staff, plant staff, cafeteria staff...

  4. I raised my eyebrow a few weeks ago at Purdue, when they had student appreciation week. Maybe it was because I've taught too many freshmen, but I found it a bit presumptuous that students needed an appreciation week. Why do they need to be appreciated? What goes on during that week? Am I supposed to thank students for being students?


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.