Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Make It Count: Dealing With Language's Little "Oversights"

A remark by fellow contributor Mike Pope on last month's column got me thinking about oversight and its two rather contrasting meanings. There's oversight-1: "an unintentional omission resulting from failure to notice something"—something you generally want to avoid. And there's oversight-2: "management by overseeing the performance or operation of a person or group"—something that in a perfect world would happen all the time, and would ideally prevent a lot of oversight-1s from happening. Why use the same word to designate such contrasting things?

Despite the contrasting meanings, there is little ambiguity in usage. Context usually makes clear whether we're talking about good oversight or bad oversight, as in the following sentences.

Traditionally oversight has been exercised collegially by the various Councils of the church.

It may well be that this is an oversight which will be remedied in the final legislation.

Financial institutions are at a disadvantage because of the lack of regulatory oversight in this area.

He considered it his duty as a good American citizen to play his part in correcting this oversight.

The purpose of the Board is to provide strategic oversight of DCA in support of the Permanent Secretary.

How do you know that its code doesn't contain any oversights that may lead to a system compromise?

You probably figured out correctly that these six sentences are arranged in order 2-1-2-1-2-1, representing alternating pairs in which the meaning  of oversight is "good", then "bad." There are many helpful disambiguating clues, most of them lexical, but notice also that the two words are grammatically and syntactically distinguished: good oversight is never countable, and bad oversight is expressed as countable. To put that another way, it would be a violation of sense to pluralize the good kind of oversight, and the bad kind of oversight, even when used in the singular, has syntactic markers to signal to the reader that a countable noun is being used (for example, use of the indefinite article before oversight in sentences 2 and 4).

Are your eyes glazing over? I ask, because when I tried to pry out of a classroom of college juniors the other day the distinction between countable and uncountable nouns, they all gave me that faraway look that I interpret as their thinking WTF is he talking about? The distinction between countable and uncountable nouns is one that all native speakers absorb early on, even though they may not be able to articulate clearly the rules by which they distinguish the two. Learners of English, on the other hand, often struggle with the distinction and make errors by construing a noncount noun as countable, or vice versa.

A Language Lounge column from 2008 explored some aspects of this phenomenon of English grammar. The occasion of that piece was speculation by writer Michael Erard that the count/noncount distinction in English would be relaxed or even abandoned under pressure from nonnative speakers of English, who today outnumber native speakers and whose numbers are increasing at a greater rate than native speakers' numbers are. Six years is a short span of time in language evolution, but there is certainly no sign yet that the count/noncount distinction is going to be abandoned in English. Any talk of newses, informations, furnitures, or advices remain glaring errors to any fluent English speaker: these are uncountable nouns that we just never pluralize.

An easy way of grasping your instinctive understanding of count and uncount nouns (or possible lack thereof, if you're an English learner) is to think about what must follow the words much and many. Many, whether used in a question or a statement, must be followed by a plural form, which is necessarily a count noun (except in the doge meme, which exploits this aspect of English grammar for laughs):

How many cookies are left?

There weren't many cars in the parking lot when I left.

Much, on the other hand, must be followed by a singular form, which is usually a noncount noun but in some cases may be a count noun pressed into service (by coercion) as a noncount noun:

How much cookie dough do you need to make 50 cookies?

You can't buy very much car for $20,000 these days.

The second example forces car, normally a count noun, to take on different meaning, perhaps akin to 'automotive value.' The idea expressed is very different from the idea in "You can't buy very many cars for $20,000 these days."

When the same word can follow much or many, with the only necessary change that it is a singular form for one, a plural for the other, it is usually the case that you are invoking two different meanings of the same word:

How much time will I need to change planes?

How many times did you change planes to get here?

The first sentence invokes the meaning "a period of time considered as a resource under your control and sufficient to accomplish something"; the second sentence invokes the meaning "an instance or single occasion for some event." A similar alternation occurs with the binary meanings of oversight:

How much oversight of this process does your committee have?

How many oversights led to this debacle?

This brings us back to a question we started with: why use the same word to denote things that have such contrastive meanings? Wouldn't language be clearer if each word meant one thing and not another—and certainly not something that is nearly its opposite?

We often think of ambiguity as a problem in language, a bug that needs to be fixed, but a different view gaining currency now is that ambiguity is not a bug; it is a feature. (See, for example, "The communicative function of ambiguity in language" and "Language learners restructure their input to facilitate efficient communication.") It arises naturally out of a need to make language maximally efficient, using the most economic means to convey information. This means recycling a lot of message units (e.g., words) and providing some other means in the language (e.g., grammar) to supply the necessary disambiguating information.

The website Mental Floss recently published a list of 25 words that are their own opposites, a list that includes oversight, albeit with an unconvincing explanation of how it developed opposite meanings. Oversight is the only word on the list whose meanings in English are distinguished by countability, but a quick perusal of the list reveals that English has a number of ways to disambiguate words whose different meanings conflict with each other. Usually, we manage these ambiguities and ferret out intended meanings, with very few oversights.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 3rd 2014, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Mark A. L.
"I'm looking over
A four-leaf clover
That I overlooked before..."
Monday November 3rd 2014, 10:14 AM
Comment by: JAMES A B.
What is the present count/noncount usage guide for less and fewer?
Monday November 3rd 2014, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
James: VT contributor Jonathon Owen wrote about less/fewer last month:

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